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This article was published 2/10/2019 (365 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A robust framework for addressing sexual and gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions has recently been published.
To be clear, I am not referring to the sexual violence strategy report commissioned by the University of Manitoba that was released on Sept. 17.
Courage To Act: Developing a National Draft Framework to Address and Prevent Gender-Based Violence at Post-Secondary Institutions in Canada is authored by long-term survivor activists and educators. Courage to Act is grounded in feminist anti-violence activism and comprehensively addresses the complex ways multiple forms of systemic marginalization affect survivors.
In contrast, the U of M-commissioned report, despite repeated claims that it is "objective" and "independent," was produced by lawyers with numerous U of M affiliations (alumni, instructors, faculty of law council member, trustee of endowment funds) at a reported cost of $430,000. If either U of M author has expertise in addressing sexual violence, the evidence is elusive. What stands out from available online sources are commitments to public service, bureaucracy, and administrative and insurance law.
These may be accomplished individuals in their respective fields, but surely accomplishments relevant to the actual focus of the report — i.e., combating sexual violence — should have been sought. For anti-violence strategies to have any chance of succeeding, they need to be more than mere bureaucratic exercises.
The U of M report altogether excludes the voices of survivors, with the paternalistic rationale provided at the launch session that it would be too traumatizing for survivors to participate in discussions about appropriate institutional pathways for addressing sexual violence. The term "gender-based violence" appears nowhere in the report. What does appear at regular intervals are congratulatory statements about the U of M’s "good work" in addressing sexual violence.
Had survivors been asked for our perspectives, we might have offered a different view on whether the institution is indeed performing well in this regard. But presumably that was the point.
Courage to Act recognizes that gender-based violence encompasses a wide variety of issues, including sexual violence. Such understanding is necessary to ensure appropriate institutional responses. One area where universities fall short is in their responses to intersecting forms of violence. I know something about this, having experienced workplace sexual violence and administrative abuse from a former intimate partner. I did not somehow ask for or deserve the subsequent harassment because I previously consented to a relationship. Chastising people for consuming alcohol prior to an assault is not the only mechanism by which institutions slut-shame survivors.
The U of M report’s focus is risk and liability management, with a number of the recommendations merely endorsing practices the university is already supposedly employing. For example, one recommendation conflates restorative justice with a single example of a sharing circle and offers no further insight on restorative processes.
That restorative justice is even available at the U of M comes as a surprise, given that I have repeatedly requested (and not received) restorative justice to address the sexual and gender-based violence I have experienced.
The Courage to Act framework positions trauma-informed approaches as a campus-wide imperative, while the U of M report specifies this training is needed only for investigators of formal sexual-violence complaints. Yet survivors can be re-traumatized in their involvement with many university processes and related interactions with senior administrators.
This raises the question of whether the U of M’s senior leadership team, pre-selected by president David Barnard for the purpose of implementing the recommendations, is really the most appropriate group to be spearheading this work in the absence of trauma-informed expertise.
Undoubtedly, U of M administration wants to blaze a path away from recent scandals. How the institution is protecting students, employees and the public from sexual predators in its ranks remains a glaring concern, and not just for donors who seek assurances their grandchildren are safe in the campus buildings that bear their names.
However, unlike the Courage to Act framework, the U of M’s new strategy sees "what is" decisively trumping "what could be," prompting a concern about whether much here is really new at all.
For the U of M to claim to have a survivor-centred approach, the only justifiable path forward involves actually listening to the people who have experienced sexual violence at this institution. We survivors have plenty of meaningful ideas about how matters can and must be handled differently.
Disappointingly, our voices have been excluded in the development of the U of M institutional sexual violence strategy, suggesting that courage and action are once again being subsumed by the status quo.
Clea Schmidt is a professor of education at the University of Manitoba and co-ordinator of the Preventing and Addressing Violence in Education working group.
Updated on Wednesday, October 2, 2019 at 7:37 AM CDT: Fixes headline
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