Toronto’s Strong Neighbourhood Strategy must include gender-based violence

By Wendy Komiotis, Executive Director, METRAC

The Toronto Strong Neighbourhood Strategy 2020 (TSNS 2020) report was recently released and is being discussed today at a public City of Toronto Community Development and Recreation Committee meeting. The strategy’s goal of equitable outcomes for all neighbourhoods is commendable, and its Urban HEART @Toronto indicators – Economic Opportunities, Social Development, Healthy Lives, Participation in Decision-Making and Physical Surroundings – are essential for levelling quality of life and opportunities for all Torontonians.

But visibly missing from these indicators are measures of community safety, especially for women, girls, youth and others at high risk of sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. In its 2012 Toronto Vital Signs Report, Toronto Community Foundation found that sexual assault in Toronto increased by nearly 4% in 2011, even as other rates of violence went down. When this fact is added to the consideration that only an estimated 10% of sexual assaults are reported to police, gender-based violence reveals itself as a looming neighbourhood problem.

Higher rates of sexual violence and fear are a manifestation of social inequity women and girls face in society. Domestic violence towards women and girls is a pervasive social problem supported by evidence from government statistics, frequent media coverage, police reports and academic research.

For 30 years, we’ve identified fear and experience of gender-based violence as a quality of life issue affecting more than half of the city’s population and the vast majority of families and communities. UN Women found sexual violence in public spaces is a barrier for women and girls’ equal participation in daily life. It affects their safety in school and employment opportunities; reduces their enjoyment of culture and recreation; and negatively impacts their health and well-being. UN Women notes that this violence “remains a largely neglected issue, with few laws or policies in place to prevent and address it”.

Our city must ensure that efforts to build social equity and strong neighbourhoods include building safer neighbourhoods for women, girls and others at high risk of gender-based violence. Urban HEART indicators must include their fear and experience of this violence, and community groups that address it must be consulted and partnered with. Programs, policies and resources that arise from the TSNS 2020 have to include mechanisms to foster safer neighbourhoods for everyone, including women and girls.

We can’t expect pervasive gender-based violence to decrease if we don’t act on all levels to eliminate it – government and institutional policy and planning, corporate partnerships, community groups, organizational and individual levels alike.

TSNS 2020 and similar initiatives at the City of Toronto are promising, credible and present great opportunities to bolster quality of life. But safety for women, girls and others at high risk of gender-based violence must be incorporated into this progressive strategy to foster a livable, equitable city for everyone.

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Emotional Creature, directed by Tanisha Taitt

Emotional Creature Tanisha Taitt is a theatre artist, singer-songwriter and arts educator from Toronto. She’s Producer of V-Day Toronto and currently directing the Canadian premier of the play Emotional Creature for V-Day Toronto 2014. It will be performed February 22 and 23 at Young People’s Theatre, proceeds of which will benefit METRAC’s programs and work.

Tanisha explains that Emotional Creature is about “the fascinating being that is the adolescent female” and “how she differs and is the same around the planet”. It is based on discussions that author Eve Ensler had with girls around the globe – including Bosnia, Los Angeles and Nairobi – to learn who they were and what “girlhood” meant to them. She penned I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life Of Girls Around The World to relay those accounts, and the book formed the basis for the play.

Tanisha Taitt

Tanisha Taitt

As an artist, Tanisha is well-known for her work addressing violence against women and girls. “I am a survivor of violence,” she says. “I know what it does to a woman, a girl, a family, a future – when sexual assault ploughs into your world.” She says that “to be raped or beaten feels like receiving a dishonorable discharge from your own life” and that “the road back is incredibly lengthy and painful and long after the body has recovered, women need all the support they can possibly get to put the fragments of their lives back together.”

But Tanisha’s analysis extends further. “Tackling violence against women and girls is not just about helping those who have already been victimized. It is about educating young people who are still learning how to cultivate and navigate relationships, and confronting the topic from the perspective of prevention as well.” She notes, “The fact that METRAC incorporates educational workshops for youth into their work, along with everything else that they do, is a huge part of why they are an organization that I truly believe in and support. They take a wholistic approach to addressing violence against women, which is very much in line with my own philosophy about how this issue needs to be approached.”

Find more information about the play and how to purchase tickets by visiting Young People’s Theatre’s website.

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THRIVE: Our Voices Rising!

THRIVE: Our Voices Rising These free THRIVE events are part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence and are open to those who identify as women or trans. American Sign Language interpretation and note-taking, food and childcare are provided.

Gender and public transit panel discussion
Date: Friday November 22, 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM
Location: Malvern Library (30 Sewells Road, Toronto, Ontario, wheelchair accessible venue)

Gender and affordable housing panel discussion
Date: Monday November 25, 6:00 to 8:00 PM
Location: Jane and Sheppard Library (1906 Sheppard Avenue West, Toronto, Ontario, wheelchair accessible venue)

THRIVE: Our Voices Rising Forum
Date: Saturday November 30, 9:30 AM to 3:00 PM
Location: Metro Hall (55 John Street, Toronto, Ontario, wheelchair accessible venue, gender neutral washrooms available)

Please register for the events you’re interested in attending by November 15. You can do so online or by downloading our PDF package.

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Intervening in Surdivall v Director of the Ontario Disability Support Program

METRAC and ARCH Disability Law Centre are “Intervenors” in Surdivall v Director of the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), a case that went to the Court of Appeal for Ontario on September 17, 2013. The Intervenors are being represented in court by a lawyer at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto.

What are Intervenors?
They are people or groups that a court allows to add to the arguments of the parties in a case and explain the possible impact of its decision. In this case, the Intervenors are presenting how the judgment might affect the groups they have knowledge about.

What led to the case?
The Appellant, Mr. Surdivall, received an overpayment of benefits under ODSP for several months when he was moving residences and paying rent for two apartments during that time. The Director determined that he had to repay the overpayment. The Appellant appealed to the Social Benefits Tribunal, which said the Director of the ODSP should recognize that there was a legitimate argument that he should not have an overpayment because he was using his shelter allowance to pay for the residence where he was actually residing. The Tribunal also noted the financial hardship that repayment would cause. It ordered that the repayment be reduced by half and collected over time. The Director appealed that decision to the Divisional Court of Ontario. The Court said that neither the Director nor the Social Benefits Tribunal has discretion to forgive overpayments and overturned the Tribunal’s decision. The Appellant then appealed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario.

What’s the question in this case?
Does the ODSP Director and/or the Social Benefits Tribunal have discretion under the Ontario Disability Support Program Act (ODSPA) to forgive or not collect all or part of an overpayment of benefits?

What’s the position of the Intervenors?
We believe the ODSPA must be interpreted in such a way that allows the ODSP Director and Social Benefits Tribunal discretion to not collect all or part of an overpayment. We believe the Court must adopt an interpretation of the ODSPA that is consistent with values under the Ontario Human Rights Code and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We believe that exercising no discretion in these cases can lead to discrimination against women survivors of domestic violence and people with cognitive or mental health disabilities.

How might women who are survivors of domestic violence be affected?
Social assistance overpayments under the ODSPA are fairly common for many reasons. Sometimes overpayments happen in the context of domestic violence, including financial control, abuse and fraud. In these conditions, we are concerned that disabled women who receive these benefits may not know an overpayment is being made, may not have control over their finances, or may risk further abuse from a partner if she reports. Sometimes the overpayment may result from fraud committed by an abusive spouse. As well, the financial hardship a woman may face from making a repayment could force her to stay in an abusive relationship. Examples of these types of hardships have already been brought to the Social Benefits Tribunal.

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Quibbling over whether campus rape is an epidemic

By Tamar Witelson, Legal Director, METRAC

It’s a new academic year; frosh week events rolled out; and there were news reports about forced sexual contact on campus. The pattern is sadly familiar.

Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail columnist, would have us believe that situating this annual pattern in the context of persistent “rape culture” is overblown (“Rape on campus – is it an epidemic?”, September 12, 2013).

Based on statistics Ms. Wente quotes as reliable, “the yearly rape rate” is 50 per 100,000 people in the United States, and was “14 forcible rapes” out of 20,088 female students in 2010 at the University of Michigan, her old alma mater. In contrast, she argues that the estimated rate of sexual attacks on Canadian campuses, “one in five women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape by graduation”, couldn’t possibly be true: “it would mean that university campuses are uniquely dangerous places – far more dangerous than Canada’s most crime-ridden inner cities.”

METRAC has been conducting our United Nations’ endorsed Safety Audit on Canadian campuses for nearly 25 years, and has identified many reasons why sexual assault is endemic in the campus environment. These include:

      1. there is a high number of women in an identified community, and they are most often targeted for assault;
      2. there is a disproportionately high number of people under the age of 25 in that community and young people, especially young women, are at higher risk of experiencing assault;
      3. a significant number of people make campuses their home and sexual assault happens in “home settings” in high rates;
      4. excessive alcohol and chemical substance use are common features of campus life and that can add to abuse dynamics; and
      5. student life lends itself to study and social activities late at night and campuses often have many unmonitored, deserted, poorly lit areas ill-designed for safety, especially safety for women and other groups at high risk of abuse.

When these conditions are mixed with a blurred notion of sexual consent, the risk of unwanted sexual contact is increased, including violent and threatening speech, unwanted touching, use of “date rape drugs” in various forms and forced sexual contact by an acquaintance, date or partner or stranger.

Ms. Wente points out that American universities collect and publish “rape statistics” but Canadian universities do not. American universities funded by the federal government are required by federal law to annually collect and report alleged incidents of campus crime, including sexual offences. Ms. Wente’s frustration supports the need for similar legislation in Canada, to move towards a more accurate picture of the situation here. However, in the absence of better Canadian sexual assault data, Ms. Wente argues that the known figure of 14 “forcible rapes” in a year is no sign of “widespread moral rot”. Are chants which celebrate rape of no concern? Are 14 “forcible rapes” acceptable? Is even one?

Another troubling gap in the data is the high proportion of sexual assaults that go unreported: Ms. Wente concedes that “rape and assault are underreported”. Statistics Canada and other surveys continue to find that less than 10% of sexual assaults are reported to police. A significant barrier for women deciding whether to report and seek formal help after a sexual attack is the expectation that they will receive dismissive and disparaging responses.

Are the allies, who decry a culture that absorbs any rate of rape, to be dismissed? We ask everyone to consider this: in any society and especially on campus, where the environment is so ripe for sexual assault, isn’t it important to invest in sexual assault centres, official investigations, task forces, sensitivity education and new, improved policies?

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Not Your Baby now for Android Originally available only for iPhone, we recently released an updated Android version of the Not Your Baby app to help users deal with sexual harassment. It allows users to input where they are – such as work, school or on the street – and who’s harassing them – such as a boss, coworker or fellow student. A response is generated in the moment based on the contribution of thousands of other users who shared what they did to deal with similar instances of harassment. Not Your Baby also allows users share their personal stories of dealing with harassment.

In the current release, new visual themes are available and new “where” and “when” categories have been added based on user feedback, including “online” and “faith leader”. Since its first release in September 2012, over 5000 users have downloaded the app and it has garnered coverage from media such as The National Post, Ottawa Sun, Mail Online UK, Huffington Post, Torontoist and Bitch Magazine. Jezebel called the app “genius”.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (2011) recognizes unwelcome “vexatious comment or conduct” as sexual harassment. Gender-based harassment, “used to get people to follow traditional sex stereotypes”, is understood as a form of sexual harassment. A 1995 survey found that 8 out of 10 young women were harassed in secondary school and in 2009, research showed that nine out of 10 transgender students and six out of ten lesbian, gay and bisexual students were verbally harassed (Ontario Women’s Directorate, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and Ministry of Education; Egale Canada).

Social media and technology may pose its dangers, but Not Your Baby demonstrates how they can be used to help people take action, including girls and women, LGBTTIQQ2S communities and other groups at high risk of harassment. It is available on iTunes, Google Play and by visiting METRAC’s website.

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Toronto’s Take Back the Night: interview with deb singh

Photo credit: Gelay Amdo

Photo credit: Gelay Amdo

Take Back the Night (TBTN) is coming on Saturday September 21 at Central Neighbourhood House (249 Ontario Street) in Toronto, and METRAC will attend to share our violence prevention resources at a community table between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. I interviewed deb singh, Counsellor and Activist at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape. She has led the event for the past four years.

TBTN is a community-based event to protest fear that women and trans people often have accessing the streets at night. deb says it’s a “grassroots event that honours the experiences of survivors” of many forms of violence including sexual, domestic, state and institutional violence. TBTN events happen around the world these days but appear to have been launched in the United States in 1975. In Toronto, TBTN started in 1980 after Barbra Schlifer was murdered on same night she celebrated passing the bar and becoming a lawyer. Barbra was known for supporting women’s rights and the rights of marginalized people. (After her death, the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic was also named after her.) The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape hosted the first TBTN as a march, protest and vigil.

Some might suggest we don’t need events like TBTN because things are different from the way they were in 1980. deb would answer comments like that by pointing to Canadian statistics such as:

  • one in two women has experienced sexual violence or some form of violence;
  • one in seven boys and one in four girls will experience some form of sexual violence as children; and
  • Indigenous women are eight times more likely to experience violence.

Photo credit: Gelay Amdo

Photo credit: Gelay Amdo

TBTN also addresses systemic forms of violence and discrimination. “Until no one experiences racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, classism or any other form of violence,” deb explains, “I think TBTN is still relevant today.”

deb notes that, in her mind, TBTN’s greatest success is its community organizing committee. It’s not just what happens at the rally, march or community fair – TBTN also focusses on “building connections and authentic relationships with community members and survivors of (sexual) violence.” deb notes that TBTN is an opportunity for all of us to “educate ourselves around being better allies to each other as survivors of sexual violence as well as educating the larger community about our issues and identities as survivors.”

If you would like to volunteer, visit TBTN’s website. Organizers are searching for people to help serve food, marshal the march, support accessibility and participate in planning.

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