We are in the final week of May, which has been designated in Ontario as sexual assault prevention month. I did a quick online search to see what Minister Lisa McLeod, who carries responsibility for “women’s issues” within her mandate as Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, had to say for the month and found. . . nothing. The website is blank.
This is not really much of a surprise, given this government’s lack of attention to violence against women generally. Fortunately, sexual assault centres – despite the insecurity of their funding – have used this month to raise awareness about sexual violence in their communities across the province.
The Renfrew Women’s Sexual Assault Centre asked me to speak at the unveiling of an addition to its beautiful pebbled monument to survivors of sexual violence. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day as I drove almost three hours north of Kingston to Eganville for the ceremony. The first part of the journey took me past hundreds of roadside lilac bushes just beginning to bloom, and I was treated to glimpses of trilliums in the forests as I got closer to my destination.
Centre staff and Board members, along with members of the community and some of the artists from Red Dress Productions who led the development of this ongoing monument gathered in Centennial Park, on the banks of the Bonnechere River, for the unveiling.
Here is what I said.
As always, it is a pleasure to be able to spend time with all of you who work so hard in this community to support survivors of male violence, raise public awareness about sexual violence and advocate for systemic change.
And, as always, I wish we did not have to spend our time together this way because, like you, I wish we could live our lives free from violence and the threat of violence.
The monument being unveiled today is an important addition to this community. We need these physical representations of the violence done to women in every community on this planet.
As Rebecca Solnit wrote:
“We need a national rape monument or a tomb to the unknown domestic violence victim. Something that would make people notice that we are in an epidemic and say enough is enough.”
I am more than ready to say enough is enough. Or, as Eve Ensler says:
I am over rape . . .
I am over rape culture . . .
I am over people not understanding that rape is not a joke . . .
I am over rape victims being re-raped when they go public . . .
I am over women still being silent over rape, because they are made to believe it’s their fault . .
I am over being polite about rape . . .
Law vs justice
We may all be over rape, but rape is not over us, yet. Women in rural communities, especially, face ongoing hurdles and barriers when they attempt to access “justice” after being subjected to sexual violence.
Law and justice are often spoken about as though they are the same thing, but anyone who has been involved in the criminal system – or “justice system” as it is often called – knows that while what happens there may be about the law, it is not often justice for anyone, especially not for survivors of sexual violence.
When I was here a couple of years ago, we talked about the provincial pilot to provide free independent legal advice to survivors of sexual violence. It was a great pilot: the women who were able to access this service found it to be extremely helpful. I was one of the lawyers providing the independent legal advice, and I found the work to be deeply moving and deeply satisfying. While I did not think the project ensured “justice” for the women I spoke with, I did think it offered them the possibility to feel empowered through a process that is often entirely disempowering. Most of the women told me that they felt heard and validated through our conversations, even if they decided not to report what had happened to them to the police – they did not need the criminal law system to tell them what they already knew: they had been harmed by a man’s violence towards them.
Available only in three communities at that time – all of them urban – we anticipated that the pilot would roll out into a permanent program available across the province. Any hope for that disappeared soon after Doug Ford was elected premier, almost a year ago. As a result, women living in rural parts of the province continue to be left without access to this important program. As a result, rural women don’t have the opportunity to be heard by a lawyer who understands violence against women and who will validate their experience without telling them what to do.
This program helped women take their voices back, and women everywhere in Ontario should have access to it. So many women don’t have the voice to call out the men who have sexually assaulted or abused them because these men are their uncles, their boss in a small workplace, a guest in a motel where they are a cleaner, their coach, their religious leader, their husband or boyfriend.
In rural and small communities, these men are often well known and hold power, making speaking out about their violence even more difficult.
The power of women’s voices
The MeToo movement has reminded us of the power of women’s voices and stories in bringing sexual violence out of the shadows and into the light. We have all become stronger by hearing other women talk about the sexual violence in their lives. Without the voices of individual women – women like you and me – even more men would continue to get away with raping and sexually assaulting women.
When we speak up and speak out, we strengthen ourselves in our own healing and moving on in our own lives. We help other women who have felt silenced find their voices and speak out. We teach girls and boys that sexual violence is not okay; that it is something to be loud about; that it is not a secret to be kept locked up.
The power of what we can accomplish knows no limit when we speak up and speak out.
This monument is a kind of collective speaking out. It gives the community the opportunity to learn and to think about violence against women. It helps women who have been subjected to violence feel visible and heard.
Like its pebbled sisters that we unveiled in 2016 and the monument to women killed by their partners in Petawawa that we unveiled in 2013, this monument stands as a stark reminder to those who might otherwise remain unaware of the daily reality of violence faced by women in almost every aspect of their lives.
Our activism and advocacy can be monuments too; living, breathing monuments to all those who have been and continue to be subjected to male violence. Let us hold that in our hearts as we leave here today.