SVPR & SACK talk preventing gender-based violence on campus

Nadia Mahdi and Barbara Lotan sit down with ‘The Journal’

Local organizations speak respond to accusations of sexual assault at other Ontario universities.

This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424.

Following the AMS Walkout to stand against sexual assault and violence, Nadia Mahdi, ArtSci ’21 and Community Outreach Coordinator for Sexual Assault Center Kingston (SACK), and Barbara Lotan, Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Coordinator (SVPR), spoke to The Journal on support and resources offered at Queen’s.

For Mahdi, preventing gender-based violence on campus starts with accountability and community-building.

“When we're addressing a culture of harm or a culture of violence, sexual violence, gender-based violence, it's about coming and making those changes and showing up time and time again,” Mahdi said.

SACK’s annual Take Back The Night took place on Sept. 23. The event saw folks from local sexual assault and violence prevention organizations, like the HIV/AIDS Resource Center (HARS) Kingston and Kingston Interval House (KIH) gather to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence.

According to Mahdi, Take Back the Night is an especially important event for the Queen’s community because it’s often students’ introduction to activism against sexual and gender-based violence.

“[Take Back the Night] is usually folks’ first encounter at the university or the college level with the things that we hushed and the secrets [we told] in the hallways of high school, or at home with our cousins,” Mahdi explained.

Mahdi believes storytelling is an especially vital method to combat sexual and gender-based violence. It allows survivors to discuss their experiences with one another in a safe environment and resist stigma surrounding the topics.

“When we're talking about young survivors of childhood sexual assault, [disclosures of] sexual violence are so affirming to hear. The healing nature of storytelling is that it normalizes our lives and what's been happening to us. It contextualizes it,” she said.

The very idea of “taking back the night,” Mahdi believes, is rooted in an important reclamation strategy for survivors of sexual violence and their allies.

“Take Back the Night is about taking back our sense of safety, our sense of agency, our power. It's taking back the streets and any other intellectual, physical, spiritual, emotional spaces that have harmed us or have ever made us feel unwelcome,” she said.

“It's about community support. It's about unity building and coming together and sharing our stories, sharing space with one another, sharing time with one with one another.”

At Queen’s, Mahdi stressed that the university has its own duty to protect and nurture its students. To her, this comes in the form of “slow work”—change that cannot happen overnight, but instead requires the institution to remain dedicated towards always combatting all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.

“[You can’t] necessarily see safety as a place that you will arrive at, as that's simply not possible for so many of us. When we look at safety like that, it's safety at someone's expense. Whereas when we talk about accountability, we're constantly reassessing what we're doing, who we're serving, who we're not serving, and how we bridge those gaps.”

Mahdi pointed towards recent accusations of sexual assault at Western University as an example of the importance of this work.

“I know that it’s been very hard to sit with the pandemic, the rise in gender-based violence and sexual violence, and also the sexual violence that's been taking place across other Ontario universities and colleges, especially with what's recently transpired at Western.”

She said Queen’s can’t shy away from these conversations.

“We have to continue. We have to keep showing up and showing up for one another,” Mahdi said.

“Maybe that looks like folks who are working on the sexual violence policy at Queen's, but also maybe that just looks like students continuing to show up for one another.”

In September, the Ontario Government announced that all universities and colleges must update their sexual violence and assault policies before March 2022 to better support students who bring complaints forward.

Lotan said the university last revised its policy in December 2020.

“The policy has been underway for a full year, so there were a variety of groups, individuals, and groups that participated in providing feedback around what the policy should include, or what changes needed to be made in the existing policy,” Lotan explained.

Ontario’s announcement detailed that the policies must ensure students who file reports of sexual violence won’t be disciplined for breaking school rules related to drug and alcohol use or be asked questions concerning past sexual history and sexual expression.

According to Lotan, the changes called for by the Ontario government had already been implemented into Queen’s sexual violence policy prior to the announcement.

On additional steps, Lotan said the pandemic has put students at a disadvantage in receiving resources and information regarding sexual assault and violence policies.

“There’s a real gap in communication, and that happened because of COVID,” she said.

“Some of the older students would know some of the things that exist that the newer student would not.”

Lotan said there will be more advertising on workshops and certificate program offered for students.

READ MORE: SVPR introduces ‘It Takes All of Us’

“There are a variety of events, different initiatives that will take place over this academic year that are partnerships with community partners like SACK, along with partnerships with provincial partners,” she said.  

Beyond awareness, Lotan said one of the biggest problems that still needs to be addressed is the social nature of alcohol consumption.

“I think we need to address [the social nature of alcohol consumption’ as a society and definitely as an institution, because there is that concern about the violence and alcohol sometimes […] coming hand in hand that link to orientation.”

When asked what consequences are faced by individuals who have committed sexual assault, Lotan said there’s “no straight-line answer”, adding that the Student Code of Conduct office guides this aspect of sexual violence policy.

“The office is guided by the procedural part of the sexual violence policy and the Student Code of Conduct has some long-standing legal principles around how things have to be in those processes,” she said.

“The outcomes of any process where the survivor has filed a complaint can range from an apology to educational sanctions.”

Consequences are in part determined by a conversation with the survivor and depend on the survivors’ needs.

According to current Policy on Sexual Violence Involving Queen’s University Students, if the Office of the University Secretariat and Legal Counsel close a complaint, their decision is final cannot be subject to review or appeal.

These procedures can be found under Sections 11 and 12.

Once a complaint is received, the University can impose “interim measures,” which work to protect the Complainant’s and Respondent’s interests. It’s the university’s hope these measures will promote a safe campus environment for all.

“Interim measures are not disciplinary and do not represent a finding of misconduct,” the procedure states.

Lotan emphasized it’s important for students to look out for each other.

“I think students have a really big role to play in creating that safe climate. There’s more of you than anyone else.”

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