People gathered in communities around the province Friday evening to mark the end of Sexual Violence Awareness Week and join in the annual Take Back the Night march.
Organized in St. John’s by the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre, Take Back the Night drew hundreds of women to the streets, marching through the downtown core to protest sexual violence against women.
According to the provincial government’s Violence Prevention Initiative, approximately half of all women over the age of 15 living in Newfoundland and Labrador will experience physical or sexual violence, and only 10 per cent will report their victimization to police.
Understanding what it means to be a “man” in the 21st century
As they awaited the march, which began at Bannerman Park, inside St. John’s City Hall about 75 men—mostly university students—gathered to watch Breaking Out of “The Man Box”, a short film exploring the kinds of ideas about manhood and masculinity that persist to this day and are at the heart of sexism and physical and sexual violence toward women. The film demonstrated that on a societal level boys are still being raised to believe that, for example, expressing emotions is a weakness, and that objectification, and even the smallest degree of felt “ownership” of women, is OK. It’s through such ideas and attitudes, and their pervasiveness in media and culture, the film explained, that sexism still permeates and manifests in our daily lives.
The film acknowledged that most men are “well-meaning”, but through interviews with several men revealed that most of them would not interfere if they saw a stranger hit his girlfriend or wife. The men interviewed said that if they saw someone hitting a woman they knew, however, they would intervene. The fear of being criticized for speaking up against sexism, or in this particular instance outright violence against women, is a big part of the problem of ending physical and sexual violence.
A short discussion followed the film, and among the topics was the question, what makes a good role model for boys and young men? Abraham Ali, an 18-year-old student from Egypt who attends Memorial University, said a good role model is “someone who stays true to himself, and most importantly to morals in this universe that he has to follow. If he stays true and he follows them, he will be the role model we [need].”
Community response is “key”
As the march progressed the men moved outside to place candles on the steps of city hall and stand in silence as they awaited the women, who arrived minutes later, chanting and holding signs with messages like “No Means No” and “Consent is Mandatory”. The men’s drum group from the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre performed a song as the women arrived by the hundreds.
Nicole Keiley of the Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre addressed the crowd, explaining the theme of this year’s Sexual Violence Awareness Week is “breaking barriers”.
Enhancing community response to violence, she said, “is an essential key to addressing and eradicating sexual violence and breaking down existing social and cultural barriers, and allowing for a unified stance against violence in all its forms and ensuring that supports are accessible, and by providing education and awareness to all members of the community. It is a must.
“By being here tonight,” she continued, “whether you’re here for yourself, whether you’re here for a friend or a loved one, or whether you’re here on behalf of an organization — you are a part of a force that is moving toward a safe and empowering community, that is ready and able to talk about, respond, and combat violence in all its forms. You are the force.”
Tracey Perry, MHA for Fortune Bay-Cape La Hune, took a moment to speak about the government’s Violence Prevention Initiative (VPI), saying it “illustrates our commitment to violence prevention against vulnerable populations, and works collaboratively with community partners such as the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre to address all forms of violence and abuse, including sexual violence.
“The VPI is focused on preventing violence against those most at risk,” she continued, “including women, aboriginal women and children, older persons, persons with disabilities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, persons of varying race or ethnicity, and persons of different economic status. Together we are helping to change the conversation around sexual violence and helping to give a voice to those who are suffering from violence and abuse.”
“Take back the Family Violence Intervention Court”
At one point, a person in the crowd yelled, “Take back the Family Violence Intervention Court,” referring to the progressive initiative the government researched, funded and implemented in 2009, but then cut in its 2013 austerity budget, despite the court’s success, its supporters say, in addressing some of the root causes of domestic violence.
Lynn Moore, a former Crown attorney for the Family Violence Intervention Court (FVIC), told The Independent she was attending the Take Back the Night march “because violence against women is still incredibly prevalent and it’s something that people need to gather together to show that they’re not happy with it,” she said. “And [to] let the people who are perpetrating the violence know that we’re just not going to take it anymore.”
Moore, who has been tirelessly advocating for the reinstatement of the FVIC, said the court “is very meaningful because women who are victimized in intimate partner relationships generally do not want to go through the traditional court process. A lot of cases go through the traditional court process end up with the charges either being withdrawn or the accused person being found not-guilty because the complainant has not shown up, and this was a very meaningful way for women’s voices to be heard.
“It was also a meaningful way for the perpetrators of violence to get help,” she explained, “because the vast majority of people who are involved in intimate partner violence, it’s not what they want to be involved in, it’s not what they want to be doing. Generally speaking they love their partners, and the FVIC provided them with an opportunity to learn to deal with situations in a way that did not involve violence.”
During the recent Progressive Conservative leadership campaign, candidate John Ottenheimer pledged to reinstate the FVIC if elected by the party’s membership. On Sept. 13 Paul Davis, MHA for Topsail, won a narrow victory to become the province’s next premier-designate. The former RNC officer of 25 years said in a leadership debate hosted by VOCM on Sept. 10 that he doesn’t think reinstating the court would solve the problem of domestic violence. “The approach I want to take,” he said, “[is] not simply [to] reinstate what we had before but find a better way forward.”
In its short time the FVIC reduced the recidivism rate among domestic violence offenders and offered a comprehensive approach to supporting family members in situations of domestic violence while offering rehabilitation opportunities to perpetrators of violence. Because of their depth and connection to a more compassionate legal framework, the programs and services offered through the FVIC, Moore and others have said, addressed domestic violence in a way no other government-supported initiatives could. It cost about $520,000 a year to operate, or around 0.2 per cent of the Department of Justice’s budget, according to St. John’s Centre NDP MHA Gerry Rogers.
A most inspirational keynote speech
Gemma Hickey, a prominent local LGBTQ rights activist who was instrumental in the push to legalize same sex marriage in the province and Canada, and a survivor of sexual abuse, delivered the keynote speech Friday night on the steps of St. John’s City Hall. Some things just can’t be edited for brevity’s sake, so here is the full text of her speech:
I’m honored to deliver the keynote speech at Take Back the Night 2014. I look out and see many women who have inspired me through the years. I want to thank you all, regardless of your orientation, identity, nationality or political affiliation, for what you’ve done for our community and for me personally.
I’d like to begin with a quote from Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
There are lines, like this one, that follow us through place and time. We push through the world and as we grow, we take in new things. Yet still, deep within us is a voice that carries.
I was eight when my grandmother said, “Me and your grandfather have knots in our stomachs worrying about you and your father.” I heard that line every day until she died four years later. And it was only then, when she stopped speaking, that I finally listened and understood.
My people came from the Old Country. Like many families at the time, they left Ireland quite literally for bread and when they arrived here, had to settle for crumbs. They weren’t merchants. They worked with their hands. Their sharp humor cut through the hard times and their stories and songs were passed down from one generation to the next like a coat of arms. And it is in this ritual of ‘passing down’ that we become equipped for things to come.
I didn’t think it was fair that my grandmother kept me inside while the other children were outside playing. I remember hearing them on the street, their laughter echoed through the window like a loud drum that hurt my ears. I didn’t want to learn how to cook and I never liked doing dishes. The water made my hands look shriveled and old. Getting down on my hands and knees to clean felt uncomfortable. Making the beds, doing laundry and ironing clothes seemed like pointless tasks because they would have to be done again the next day.
One day, as my grandmother was walking me to school, I looked up at her and wondered why she was making me do this on foot in an hour when my father could drive me in ten minutes. I burned with anger for her then and now, that fire she instilled in me is what keeps me alive.
My grandmother died when all of her chores were done. She finished her tea and lay down on my bed to rest, and didn’t wake up. My grandfather followed her not long after. When they were gone and I was left alone with my father, I remembered what my grandmother said to me, but more importantly, I remembered what she taught me.
My father drank too much. And when he couldn’t get out of his own bed, I knew how to get out of mine. I even knew how to make it. When he couldn’t cook, I knew how to turn on the stove and prepare our food. And when he couldn’t drive me to school, I walked there myself wearing a uniform that was washed and neatly pressed.
Sometimes, as feminists we make assumptions about women like my grandmother because of how they’ve chosen to live their lives. In doing so, we create our own brand of fundamentalism. Instead of using our gender as a bridge, it divides us even further. In a world embedded in what Michel Foucault called discourse, where the schools we attend educate us into ignorance; where the churches we were raised in, teach us how to hate. Where do we go from here and how do we get there?
The answer isn’t in the dismantling because we can’t throw it all away, as much as we’d sometimes like to. It’s in the building and rebuilding. Not just of material things or abstract ideas, but of people and communities. How do we do this? We work together and salvage whatever supplies we can, using the tools we’ve unlearned and learned as our base. Raymond Williams thought we have a lot to unlearn, but I think we also have some things left to learn, especially from women like my grandmother.
Was she teaching me how to be a devoted housewife? No, of course not. She was teaching me how to survive in the only way she knew how. And survival is a practical tool that I have used as my foundation.
Last July, I told the world I was sexually assaulted by a Roman Catholic priest. Did that experience break me both physically and mentally? You better believe it did, but I put myself back together. Was I held hostage by my anger? Almost, but I set myself free. Did my marriage end because I didn’t know how to accept love? Yes. But when you’ve lost, you have everything to gain. I’m open now and ready to love and to be loved. I reclaimed my body and my mind and in doing so, I took back my life.
If you’ve been violated, use it as a tool to rebuild. Take whatever is left and start from the bottom up. Sometimes your vulnerability can be your greatest strength. On top of the ashes, I’m the master of my own house and I like what I’ve built so far.
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