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Building a student movement to end campus sexual violence

Image: The image modified for use in this post is used with the permission of Our Turn.

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh interviews Jade Cooligan Pang. She is an undergraduate student taking Political Science and Human Rights at Carleton University in Ottawa, and she is one of the central organizers of Our Turn, a new national student-based initiative to work against sexual violence on college and university campuses.

There has been no shortage in recent years of stories from post-secondary institutions across the continent that make it clear to anyone willing to listen that sexual violence is a major problem on campuses. These stories make equally clear that a lot of universities do a pretty rotten job of preventing sexual violence and of responding to it when it happens. Students on a number of different Canadian campuses recognized this problem and formed Our Turn to take action themselves.

Back in 2015, with the passage of Bill 132 by the Ontario government, universities and colleges in the province were mandated for the first time to develop standalone policies dealing with sexual violence, and were required to consult with students as they did so. Jade was one of the people involved in drafting the campus Human Rights Society's comments on Carleton University's draft policy. Some of their suggestions were adopted by the university, but they still had some significant concerns with the final version of the policy. When they approached the university administration to work on further strengthening it, they were informed that there were no immediate plans to re-open it.

So at first, their only reason for researching the sexual violence policies at other institutions in Ontario and then across Canada was to strengthen their arguments while putting pressure on their own administration. Pretty soon, though, they realized that there were problems common to the sexual violence policies of many different colleges and universities, and they decided to connect with other students on campuses across the country to push post-secondary institutions to do better.

The national Our Turn committee reviewed the policies from more than 60 schools. They developed standards for what an ideal sexual violence policy would contain. Then they reached out to student unions and offered them the opportunity to collaborate in doing an evaluation of the sexual violence policies at their respective institutions using Our Turn's framework. A total of 14 student unions participated, and Our Turn published a report card and action plan in October.

The grades in the report card ranged from Toronto's Ryerson University, which was given an A-, to half a dozen schools which scored in the D range. The students found numerous problems common to many of the institutions. For instance, some policies do not adequately define consent. Some universities in provinces do not mandate that post-secondary institutions have a standalone sexual violence policy deal with sexual violence, using much the same process as they would to deal with, say, plagiarism, or via some other mechanism that is simply not adequate to deal with the serious realities of sexual assault. Some do not cover all situations within campus life where sexual violence can be an issue. Some do not do enough to centre the safety and wellbeing of survivors in the complaint process they create. Some do not go far enough in accommodating the needs of survivors in terms of academics or student housing. Some do not do enough to recognize the ways in which other aspects of identity intersect with gender to shape experiences around sexual violence. Some allow senior administrators the discretion to unilaterally override the process. Many do not go far enough in requiring that students be taught about things like consent and bystander intervention. And these are just a few of the problems they discovered.

As part of the Our Turn action plan, the student unions that signed on each agreed to create a local Our Turn committee on their campus that will do work around prevention, support, and advocacy related to sexual violence. This will include things like running their own trainings related to bystander intervention to prevent sexual assault, passing a motion acknowledging that rape culture exists on campus and committing student unions to working towards consent culture, and engaging in advocacy on the issue on their campus, in their community, and with their provincial government. And the national Our Turn committee is continuing to work to get other student unions to sign onto the action plan, and intends to continue pressuring provincial governments to strengthen their requirements and their oversight for university and college sexual violence policies.

Image: The image modified for use in this post is used with the permission of Our Turn.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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