Stepping Up Against Gender Violence – Paxton Caseley Memorial Service Address

DSC_0265If I ask you to think about an example of gender-based violence, it’s likely that for most of us, some of the first things that come to mind are the tragedies and more explosive events that leave their mark on individuals, families, and at times their communities. But the sad reality is that violence begins much earlier. It is something that grows and like everything that grows, it starts somewhere small. The beginnings of gender-based violence are all around us in our everyday lives. It’s the demeaning or sexist joke that someone might have said in passing. It’s ways in which women are objectified and over-sexualized in our media. It’s the constricting gender-roles and expectations that are forced upon women from the time they are born. The list goes on and on.

When we idly stand by, don’t speak up, or don’t question these things, we are giving permission for violence to occur. We are enabling the sexist remarks and reinforcing the superior attitudes of the person who make these demeaning jokes. We are allowing women to be erased, diminished, and minimized by forcing them to fit into gender roles that demand their silence and obedience. And it also means that we are telling women that their intelligence and tenacity are not as valuable as it is to be palatable. Talking about and treating women as though we are less are the beginnings of violence. When women and female-identifying individuals are viewed as being second-class, it can quickly descend into dangerous thinking and actions. Not only does it mean that our voices, opinions, and concerns do not hold as much merit or importance; but it also means that when we do speak up about inequality or our right to feel safe and be free of harassment, abuse, and violence that we are not being taken seriously, we are dismissed, we are subjected to gas-lighting, we are asked what were we wearing, and we are told that it probably wasn’t as bad as we thought.

And so, these seemingly small acts of violence all add up to perpetuate, or even allow violence to continue.

This year’s theme is about taking action to prevent violence against women and we all have a role to play. When I’ve taught bystander intervention courses, I always like to remind people that bystander intervention doesn’t have to look like a dramatic scene from a soap opera. You don’t need to be a hero. It’s truly as simple as voicing your discomfort if you hear someone make degrading comment. It de-escalates the situation and creates a pause in whatever momentum they may have had, and hopefully following that pause there will be some internal reflection.

This past year, I had the opportunity to work with students and various organizations across Canada as we worked to address the issue of sexual violence on post-secondary campuses. I heard from many survivors and victims of their personal experiences, and no matter where they were from or which province they studied in, I kept hearing time and time again of the damage and hurt that occurs when school administrators, police officers, friends, or even family refuse to believe them. Because rather than receive the support and justice that they rightfully deserve, they are often found at a standstill and are unable to move forward. In the context of post-secondary institutions, all too often we saw that student survivors were being punished for coming forward, and if they were not placed under gag order, forced to see their perpetrator on campus and in classes, or being revictimized by investigators, they were dropping out and unable to continue their education without the needed and deserved safety and support. When you find yourself in a situation where something horrific and traumatic has happened to you, that fear does not leave you for a very long time, or perhaps it never does. It takes tremendous courage to speak up and tell someone, especially as there is often a significant risk involved in disclosing your experience. This is why it is crucial for there to be institutional accountability in the form of provincial legislation and regulations because despite what we would like to believe, institutions do not always have the best interests of student survivors in mind.

So not only do we need to learn to recognize violent behaviours, but we also need to believe the survivors and victims of violence. We all have an important role to play in the prevention of gender-based violence. We can choose to take action or remain inactive, but no matter your choice, remember that both have their consequences. And so I ask you to listen and believe survivors, speak up when something doesn’t seem right, intervene and de-escalate the situation, but above all.. be the change that you want to see.

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