A board member from the Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) met with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne last week to discuss the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment on college and university campuses in Ontario.
Betty Wondimu, the TCSA Women’s Issues Commissioner, was specifically selected by the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) to represent not only Trent, but all small universities in Ontario in a round-table discussion that was organized by both the Ontario Government and the CFS.
The Provincial Government has recently committed to cracking down on the serious issue of sexual violence on campuses across the province. In an attempt to understand the issues fully, the Premier called upon the CFS to form a panel that would assist in developing universal policies for schools within the province.
Wondimu sat on the panel with student leaders from 21 other schools to speak on behalf of the 350,000 students that make up the largest student union in Ontario.
Wondimu was specifically contacted by the CFS because of her extensive work with the TCSA in regards to equity on campus. On top of being the Women’s Issues Commissioner, Wondimu has also been a coordinator for the Consent is Sexy campaign, and has done work with the Positive Space Campaign. In addition, she has also sat on the Gender Issues Committee.
Wondimu has also done significant work with organizations not focused on sexual violence, but they have all been focused in one way or another on equity.
According to Wondimu, “I believe that for sexual violence to be worked on, there needs to be a more equitable environment for everybody. The likelihood of violence towards a transgender person, for instance, is higher, and it’s because of the perception of that community.”
She continued, “There’s a lack of understanding there, and then there’s a lack of services that are accessible for that community. I feel like the work I’ve done serves a purpose that tries to create a more equitable environment for all genders and for all sexual identities.”
While the creation of a more equitable environment on campus is absolutely vital to eliminating sexual violence on campus, there has also been an active push at Trent to change the very discussion around sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Wondimu has been part of a group that has been striving to implement preventative strategies against sexual violence and to provide education around consent, language, culture change, bystander intervention, and other prevention opportunities.
This group also significantly contributed to the report that would eventually be read to the Premier.
Included in this group are Nona Robinson, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs; Julia Anderson, Director for the Centre for Human Rights, Equity, and Accessibility; Boykin Smith, Vice President of Campaigns and Equity; Amy Keating from the Trent Feminist Society; and Louise Fish, Director for Risk Management.
In the report to Wynne, Wondimu discussed the importance of openly discussing sexual assault as an issue; arguing there have been laws and policies in place for a long time and sexual violence keeps on happening.
A significant suggestion to the Premier was implementing education surrounding sexual violence in public schools as early as grade 5.
The TCSA’s representative also stressed the importance of having agencies and resources put in place that will be there for survivors of sexual assault, making it clear that they will be supported.
Trent University is currently working to further improve its own resources regarding preventative measures and support for survivors of sexual violence. It has been acknowledged that while Trent has sexual violence covered from a policy and procedures angle, there is still a need to communicate these policies as well as to provide available support for survivors on campus and off campus.
Trent is now developing a comprehensive website to properly communicate the policies and procedures that are put in place to work against sexual violence, and it will also provide a thorough support network if anyone finds themselves a victim of sexual harassment or assault.
The website will be able to help anyone who has questions or doesn’t know what to do in a situation.
Trent is continuing to develop programs because, according to Wondimu, “in the case of working against sexual violence on campus, there’s always room for improvement.”
Still, Wondimu and the TCSA were contacted by the CFS to report on the successes that Trent has already had in implementing change, including bystander interventions, positive space, anti-oppression training, ISW training, and so on.
In the address to Wynne, Wondimu also commented on the lack of resources available to student groups working against issues like sexual violence. Budgetary constraints can keep even the most organized groups from gaining ground, and Wondimu asked for provincial support on this; noting her own personal experience with trying to organize Consent Week on a $500 budget.
The Premier was apparently very receptive to the presentation and took a very keen interest in what Wondimu and the other student leaders had to say.
“Kathleen was very open, had staff taking down notes and she was taking down notes as well. The Ministry for Women’s Issues was also present,” says Wondimu.
“I felt as though she was listening and really took what we had to say with weight, not like we were just there for show.”
The Ontario Government is expected to release its sexual violence action plan in March of this year, and it seems as though Premier Wynne has been incorporating the inputs of a very wide variety of individuals and groups to make sure the plan is as informed as it can be.
It would also seem that this panel has given the participants ammunition to return to campuses and continue to further their work against sexual violence.
According to Wondimu, “I’m really lucky as a student to be part of an institution that values the roles that students play.”
“My intention is to come to Trent and, within the aspect of sexual violence, I want to make sure there is more preventative measures put in place. I want to move away from reactionary policies where we wait for something to happen before we act – that’s what has been happening at most of the universities I spoke to.”