Nation-wide panel addresses the need for government policies.
For a long time, discussions about campus sexual violence have been dominated by prevention strategies: “yes means yes,” “no means no,” “consent is mandatory.” But what are your options if you’ve already been assaulted?
There needs to be an open and honest conversation about the bureaucracy and callousness with which university administrations handle sexual assault cases. That’s why, along with others who are all too familiar with this issue, I’m sitting on a public panel this weekend about sexual assault on campuses in this city and across the country.
The need for university administration to address sexual assault is huge—but schools often fail survivors in this regard. Whenever we discuss campus sexual assault, naysayers are quick to argue that police are responsible for sexual assault, not universities. The truth is, the police won’t help survivors move out of a dormitory or change classes to minimize contact with assailants. Nor would they facilitate exam deferrals, assignment extensions, or course withdrawals survivors may need due to poor mental health.
Universities are able and responsible to ensure all students have access to education. And when sexual violence happens disproportionately to women and trans people, universities are actively discriminating against their most vulnerable students on the basis of gender.
While it is imperative that universities enact sexual assault policies, I am skeptical about the effectiveness of such policies and afraid of universities offering them as an all-end solution to campus sexual violence. Universities don’t just need a policy; they need good policies drafted in close consultation with, or ideally by, students.
In addition, university sexual assault policies need to describe a clear reporting mechanism for survivors and clear timeframes by which they are required to respond to complaints and offer accommodations to survivors. A semester is four months long; when an investigation takes longer than a few weeks, it is effectively redundant. Delaying until the end of the semester or until the survivor or perpetrator’s graduation, however, is a common strategy used by administrators resorting to inaction. Moreover, solely relying on policies is dangerous as they tend to be forgotten or ignored, and their application can vary between different administrators.
To ensure proper enactment, sexual policies require government oversight. This oversight can either be at a provincial level through departments of justice or education, or federally with the Status of Women minister or with the Ministry of Justice. At the present moment, no government body is concerned with campus sexual violence beyond the few requiring sexual assault policies.
Even though Status of Women Canada formed an advisory council to shape the Federal Strategy on Gender-Based Violence mere months ago, it does not, disappointingly, include student activists or devote resources to gain input from them. It’s a catch-22: governments tend to not hear from survivors of campus sexual violence because there are no formal groups representing us, and because of lack of connection, communication, resources, and institutional support on top of the existence of different laws in every province, it is difficult to form a national coalition.
In the past academic year, out of 15 feature articles published in the McGill Daily, three have been written by survivors resorting to their last option: publicly describing their experience after being failed by the university administration. Until the day governments hold universities accountable for their failures, the cycle of sexual violence facilitated by universities will continue. So long as government inaction continues, there will be students in this country that are too afraid to go to class, and there will be people who, although accused of harassment and assault multiple times, will not be removed from campus.
Our network, our gathering, and our panel are the first of their kind in Canada. Since education is under provincial jurisdiction, it is difficult for students to connect, learn, and push for policy reform together at a national level. At our gathering this weekend, and at our panel, we wish to bridge the existing communication and information gap to address the issue of campus sexual violence that is plaguing our universities nationwide. We want to make our presence and our issues public to all survivors of campus sexual violence. We want them to know: we see you, we love you, we want to hear from you, and we are fighting everyday for you.
Paniz Khosroshahy is a third-year women’s studies student at McGill University who went public with her experience filing a sexual assault case at the university earlier this year.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been amended to clarify the departments at both the provincial and federal levels that would be responsible for leading policy changes.