Who should help sexual assault survivors?

Campuses divided on best approach

Up to one in four female students is sexually assaulted during university, according to the University of Alberta Health Centre. While there’s wide support for fighting gender-based violence, campuses are divided over who should provide the support and who should pay for it.

Some university clinicians want help to come from professionals in campus clinics, while some students want universities to also pay for peer-based support networks run by students. Meanwhile, some student unions, funded by mandatory fees, have taken up the prevention and support role at some schools.

The debate is playing out at Concordia University where a group called the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy (named after their main location at 2110 de Maisonneuve Blvd.) argues the university should provide funding for a student-run sexual assault centre to complement its health and counseling services. Bianca Mugyenyi, the 2110’s campaign coordinator, says that peer-based support is a model that’s worked well across Canada.

Mugyeni says that getting the university community engaged through student volunteers will help create a culture of consent. She says that peer-based support works because it tackles attitudes at a grassroots level. “It dispels the normalized idea that we should expect sexual assaults to happen,” she says.

Julie Gagne, Manager of Clinical Services at Concordia, says that trained professionals should tackle sexual assaults. Doctors at the university’s health services can order appropriate testing or make referrals for professional counseling and support. She says that sexual assault support isn’t best offered on campus because survivors might not join if they fear being seen by peers.

Lily Hoffman, the outreach manager at the Sexual Assault Center of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) says that being seen by peers isn’t a problem at McGill because the centre is located in a quiet hallway. She supports the push for a centre at Concordia. “If students don’t have a space to talk about sex in a nuanced real way, how can they even begin to talk about consent?”

But finding a space to house the centre was not the problem at McGill that it is at Concordia. SACOMSS was given its office in the 1990s in a building owned by the Students’ Society of McGill University. A few years later, they started offering mandatory consent training sessions in McGill’s many student residences. The sessions have since been adopted by the university itself.

Hoffman says that not being funded by the university gives SACOMSS more autonomy.

Still, Mugyenyi thinks students shouldn’t have to fund a centre for what, she says, is an extension of campus safety. The 2110 Centre is looking to set a precedent within Canada that peer-based sexual assault support and prevention centres are something universities should fund.

University of Alberta students are, like McGill, organizing the fight against gender violence through their student union. However, they were lucky enough to have a $200,000 grant to get started. It was part of $4 million in funding that the Government of Canada gave campus groups in November.

One thing most of the women fighting gender-based violence agree on—wherever the funding and services come from—is that there needs to be more education. As Melanie Alexander, coordinator of the Gender-Based Violence Prevention Project at U. Alberta, puts it, “we need to shift this responsibility to those who are actually perpetuating the violence and make them stop.”