Meet the Young Feminists Fighting Sexual Harassment in Canadian Politics

Samara rarely felt safe on Parliament Hill. Harassment, ranging from comments on her “exotic” features to requests for personal contact information, provoked anxiety, but she thought she had to tolerate it to succeed.

“I felt I had to be grateful to be in these spaces,” she says, so she “carefully maneuvered” the Hill’s “far too male” spaces until, emotionally and physically exhausted, she quit politics.

Samara is not alone. Many women have been scared off, or driven out of politics by something that is not just an interpersonal or social problem, but a systemic one: sexual harassment and gender-based sexual violence, and the silencing and discrediting of survivors who dare come forward.

But just a few months after a tweet turned a phrase into a movement against sexual violence, and while Canadian politics was having its own #MeToo moment, a group of young women were doing something about the problem—bringing together survivors, experts and community groups to research and design sexual violence education for political institutions.

Young Women’s Leadership Network co-founders Yasmin Rajabi (second from left) and Arezoo Najibzadeh (center) led the creation of educational resources to combat sexual violence in Canada’s political spaces. (Alia Youssef)

In their everyday work of fostering young women’s civic and political leadership, Young Women’s Leadership Network Executive Director Arezoo Najibzadeh and co-founder Yasmin Rajabi found themselves providing support for women who’d experienced sexual violence and harassment in political spaces. A new toolkit of educational resources offered by the Toronto non-profit helps managers, staff and volunteers in parties, campaigns, unions and grassroots movements prevent and intervene in sexual violence and support survivors—and promises to shift misogynist cultures within political institutions and keep young women in political careers.

“Thankfully, because I’ve been so outspoken about this issue for the past few years, we were able to create a space of trust and understanding for a lot of survivors, who would entrust us with their stories,” says Najibzadeh.  That outspokenness came from her own experience of sexual violence—“all forms of it,” she says—when she was a teenager involved in politics.

“Women are leaving politics in droves because they’ve experienced sexual violence,” she notes—and they’re not getting the support they need. “Unfortunately, a lot of these experiences won’t be believed. I had a [Member of Parliament] say to me last year, ‘Where’s your numbers, where’s your statistics?’”

When news broke in January of sexual misconduct allegations against the leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party, YWLN were motivated to expand the work they’d already been doing on an ad hoc basis, and set about formally gathering survivors’ stories—and those statistics. Over February and March, they interviewed 60 people across the province of Ontario, 95 percent of them women, who had been impacted by sexual violence, either first-hand or through their work in politics or gender-based violence. In-depth interviews with 27 of them revealed experiences of verbal sexual harassment, indecent exposure, sexual assault and rape within political spaces.

Only 12 of 27 reported the incident. Interviewees cited a lack of clear human resource mechanisms and policies, and fear and threats of defamation suits as reasons for staying silent. Of the 12 who spoke up, only one was offered any support. None of the reported incidents resulted in any consequences for the perpetrator. It’s little wonder, then, that 80 percent of them had either left or decreased their involvement with politics.

Even women with some power in political spaces are not immune to sexual violence. In February, the Canadian Press surveyed Parliament Hill staffers. Of the 65 respondents who said they’d experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment, 57 percent didn’t report it, and almost half said one reason was that they believed it would hurt their career.

YWLN is advocating for non-partisan, third-party reporting mechanisms—so that consequences to the party, campaign or perpetrator can’t be prioritized over the well-being of survivors, who often find themselves socially and professionally isolated. “I had so many plans,” a former party organizer told YWLN, “but at the end of the day I felt sick and tired of being in the same room as [the perpetrator] and have everybody act as if nothing ever happened.”

“A lot of women who started [in politics] as young women and girls, who’ve been in the field for so long—there’s so many experiences and situations you go through that really desensitize you to the gender-based violence that goes on,” says Najibzadeh. “That’s what brings on the complicity and the silence around the issue. That’s why this toolkit is so important, because when we look at political or partisan mechanisms [for disclosure], we’re looking at mechanisms whose job is benefiting the party and making sure that the status quo is maintained.”

Coming forward is an especially precarious move for women of color. “If our work is affected by sexual violence,” says community organizer Sidrah Ahmad, “we’re disposable.” Rural women also face challenges in disclosing and getting support in tight-knit communities where anonymity and confidentiality are not so easy to come by. “Often women are not speaking out,” says Rajabi. “They’re forcibly silenced, discredited.”

Research has shown that as more women are elected to office, more policies are implemented that improve quality of life and address the needs of women, families and minorities. Women also work across party lines and are highly responsive to constituent concerns. And when a government reflects the society it serves, it encourages citizen confidence in democracy. But only 26 percent of Canada’s elected officials are women.

In the lead-up to Ontario’s provincial election in June, YWLN piloted training sessions around appropriate social interactions at work events with 11 campaign teams across the province. “Some parties have been very proactive, on an institutional level, in making sure that we’re going in and working with teams who have requested these kinds of supports,” says Najibzadeh. “Backlash will always be there against survivor-centric sexual violence work that doesn’t pander to respectability politics.”

But most of the people they’ve interacted with are “really eager to learn,” she says. “What we’ve seen in the trainings is that the work we’re providing is a clear solution to not only starting those conversations but to giving them tangible resources and action items for how they can prevent this.” Instead of reacting to scandals, she says, it behooves political institutions to proactively address “toxic and dominant forms of masculinity that have made democracy sick.”

In the wake of Ontario’s election of a leader who publicly displays his sexism—calling a political reporter a “little bitch,” for example—Najibzadeh and Rajabi are looking forward to training campaign teams, province-wide, they hope, for the municipal elections in October. They are also already connecting with campaigns in the Canadian federal election scheduled to take place in 2019.

“What we are trying to do is make sure that any responses or mechanisms, formal or informal, in political institutions have to put survivors, and justice, and truth first,” says Najibzadeh. “They asked for data, they asked for statistics, so here it is. It’s really on our political institutions now to pick this up and to invest in the solutions that survivors want.”

Samara is a pseudonym.

Lisa Ferguson is a Toronto journalist and author with a passion for social issues, community and culture. From 2014 to 2016, she wrote the annual Toronto’s Vital Signs Report—a city “report card” that drives civic engagement, debate, and advocacy. In her spare time, she gets bent out of shape in yoga classes, studies español and travels as much as possible.

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