Taking Action on Violence Against Women: A plan for Ontario
Ontario's ‘activist' Premier, Kathleen Wynne and Minister responsible for Women's Issues, Tracy MacCharles launched their plan to combat sexual violence and harassment just in time for International Women's Day. At a time of heightened public awareness about issues of sexual violence and harassment against women, due in large part to the sensationalized case of Jian Ghomeshi , the once celebrated star and host of our public broadcaster's flagship talk show Q, and films like Fifty Shades of Grey, which some people believe normalizes sexualized violence against women, this plan is timely and necessary.
Called It's Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment, the Premier in introducing the plan said “after all the work that has been done to eradicate sexual violence and harassment and the misogyny that underpins them, it is difficult to believe that these actions and ideas are still pervasive today… we must and can do better.” Fighting words. And as a sector concerned with the eradication of all forms of discrimination we have a responsibility from this day (March 6, 2015) to hold the government to account. We must expect and advocate for the voices of the most marginalized women to be at the table (a permanent roundtable to advise and make recommendations on policy and programs to address the broader issues of violence against women is a critical part of the plan). We must ensure that the analytical framework used by those writing policy is an intersectional one, recognizing that women occupy multiple identities and experience violence in particular and varied ways. In other words, “marginalized women do not only endure gendered violence at higher rates, they (we) also experience it qualitatively differently.” (“Reimagining Feminism on International Women's day”. Harsha Walia. rabble.ca, 04-03-15)
Necessarily then, the responses to violence, sexual or otherwise must be tailored and thought about through the lens of the experiences of those women who are marginalized. A common response for example (and this came up during a media scrum with the Premier) is that women should call the police when they experience assault or violence. The thinking goes something like this: sexual assault is a crime. Crimes are dealt with through the criminal justice system. Women should be encouraged to call the police when they are sexually harassed or violated.
On the face of it, this makes common sense. But what this thinking fails to do is to take into account the differential relationships that some women depending on their identities have with the State (police services as representatives of the State). It is not only an issue of re-victimization as we often hear (and which is a legitimate concern) that we should be concerned about. We must also pay attention to the historical relationship between indigenous communities and communities of colour (particularly communities of African descent) and their increased criminalization by policing forces. The experiences of Trans-women and poor women with State actors must also be considered when public policy responses are being developed to eradicate violence from the lives of women and girls. In other words, responses and discussions leading to action must be politically nuanced if we are to address the specificity of the experience of violence of women in all their diversity.
The Ontario plan makes bold commitments. In total there are thirteen such commitments and a monitoring and reporting plan to gauge the effectiveness of the actions over time. A few key commitments are:
The establishment of a permanent roundtable ‘to make Ontario a leader in Canada' on issues of violence against women;
Introduction of legislation to strengthen provisions related to sexual violence and harassment in the workplace, on campus, in housing and through the civil claim process;
Enhancement of workplace laws to strengthen enforcement under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, including establishing a Code of Practice to help employers develop stronger sexual harassment policies;
Stabilize and increase funding for community-based sexual assault centres; and
Create a pilot program to provide free independent legal advice to sexual assault survivors whose cases are proceeding toward a criminal trial.
Other commitments speak to training for frontline workers in the health and community services, education and justice sectors and funding for artistic projects on the subject of consent, rape culture, gender inequality, etc.
This plan is the most comprehensive we've seen from any level of government, on sexual violence in particular and violence against women in general. There have been various programs and policies developed over the past decades here in Ontario to address issues of violence in its many forms - many of which are making a difference. By making this plan an inter-ministerial responsibility however, this Premier has upped the ante. She came in to power promising an activist social justice agenda. This first iteration of that agenda gives us hope that we are working towards building a province that is inclusive, anti-discriminatory and proactive on redressing wrongs against women. We have to ensure that redress also applies to other marginalized populations.
The document ends with the words, “To Be Continued….”. We look forward to the next steps or action on the commitments. Happy International Women's Month.