Friday, September 28, 2012

Taking Back Sudbury's Night

This is my latest journalistic piece, originally published here.

It was a night for women, together, to take public space without fear. And it was a night for women, together, to demand change.

Close to 200 women and allies gathered at the N.O.A.H. space in the Flour Mill neighbourhood of Sudbury, Ontario. People listened to music and speakers, learned about local organizations that work against violence and support survivors, shared stories, and then took to the streets in the city's 34th annual Take Back The Night march.

“It's still unsafe to walk on the streets as a woman,” said participant Eileen Roth, adding that the same was true for “queer people [and] racial minorities” as well.

Coming together in an event like this, according to Taima Moeke-Pickering, the director of Native Human Services at Laurentian University, is a matter of “taking your power and sharing it” and speaking with a “collective voice” to “demand our freedom of movement at night.” She said, “This forum is a safe and brave space for healing, sharing, and support.”

Not only did the evening challenge the ways that violence limits women's use of public space, but it also challenged the ways that stigma can keep abuse, sexual assault, and violence hidden, and women isolated. Marlene Gorman, chair of Sudbury's Coalition to End Violence Against Women and executive director of the city's YWCA, said, “We want women to know that they are not alone.” Therefore the event “encourages women to end the silence and speak out about our experiences. If we remain silent, nothing will change.”

One of the avenues provided to speak up was artistic. Both in the weeks leading up to the event and on the night itself, women, particularly survivors of sexual violence, were encouraged to exercise their creativity and design “a t-shirt that speaks to their experience or to their feelings about sexual violence” Gorman said. The shirts where then displayed at the event.

Other women took advantage of a section of the evening in which there was an open mic for survivors to share their stories. One young woman, for instance, had only ever told three people about her experience of rape, yet she fought through tears to share it with the supportive crowd. “Many of us carry secrets,” she said, and added that a big part of what kept her nearly completely silent about hers for almost ten years was the question, “What if no-one believes me?”

Gorman said that another important way of ending the silence is by “speaking out about things you see happening.” She encouraged everyone to get in the practice of intervening when they see behaviours or hear comments that make space uncomfortable or unsafe for women. For instance, “If you are with a group of friends and people are making sexual remarks about a woman's body, speak out.”

Participant Marie Pollock – who identified herself as “one of the lucky victims that survived” – also spoke strongly in favour of breaking the silence to create “awareness.” In her opinion, not only is speaking up good for other women but, she said, “hopefully it opens up the eyes of the government.”

And it was government that a number of other participants called upon to respond to the ways in which violence against women and women's disproportionate experience of poverty reinforce each other. In the words of Jennifer Johnson, professor of Women's Studies at Laurentian Univeresity, there are “major, major structural problems in our society around poverty.” Laurel O'Gorman, who spoke at the rally as both a survivor of abuse and as an activist with the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, agreed that “poverty constrains the choices that women have access to.”

Social assistance, said O'Gorman, is “completely inadequate to meet the needs of people living in poverty” and it means that many women face the choice of staying with their abuser or the “extreme poverty” of going on Ontario Works. Johnson said, “When women have fewer economic options, they have fewer options to leave an abusive relationship.” She continued, “Legally, we have all kinds of rights ... but how many women have the money to pay for a lawyer so they can actually get the 50% they are owed?”

O'Gorman talked particularly about a social assistance provision called the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB), which in some situations can provide money to social assistance recipients beyond their usual monthly amount in order to acquire or maintain housing. In her case, the start up benefit made it possible for her to leave an abusive relationship in another city and move back to Sudbury with her then-infant daughter. Yet she said that the provincial government has indicated that the CSUMB will be “changed drastically, and likely cut.” And that, O'Gorman said, will have a drastic imapct: “Cutting the Commuinty Start Up will kill women.”

According to Moeke-Pickering, while “policy and legislation needs to change” to address violence against women, “the ways that we educate our boys in our families is really important” as well.

She says, “Boys need to be aware of their power and their privilege.” We must, she says, “teach our male family members how to respect women and young girls.” In the long run “it takes a community to be healthy. So [boys and men] can't step back from this. They need to participate with us. It's not just a women's collective, it's a people's collective for change.”

Though many things need to happen to achieve it, the basic goal for participant Deborah Knuff is very simple: “No woman should ever have to feel afraid of walking the streets. No woman should ever have to be afraid because of what she's wearing.”

Scott Neigh is a writer and activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. For more of his writing, see his personal blog as well as the site about his new books on Canadian social movement history.

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