By Natalie Michie
Ryerson’s Human Rights Services Department organized the first ever panel discussion on Thursday in celebration of International Women’s Day at Ryerson.
The discussion was one of several events organized at Ryerson in recognition of International Women’s Day, a day that celebrates the wide range of achievements made by women and calls to hasten gender equality.
The discussion focused on inequity, power and sexual violence.
The panel was composed of four women: Liezel Yance, vice president internal at CESAR, Peggy Nash, a former NDP MP, Duana Taha, a Canadian TV writer and author and Yamikani Msosa, who works with Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education.
Tanya De Mello, the director of human rights services at Ryerson, said she organized the event to create a dialogue about how these systemic issues affect all aspects of people’s lives.
“I wanted to have a broader conversation about how sexual violence and inequality are linked,” said De Mello. “If you are somebody who is struggling with power, you may not be able to contest or to speak for yourself, and we need to be honest about that.”
The room was filled with about 50 people, a buffet, and tables topped with activities for attendees, such as colouring books for sexual violence survivors and supporters, titled “We believe you.”
De Mello said this was done deliberately to create a comfortable setting that would increase the interactive nature of the discussion.
A former MP, Nash discussed how Canada’s federal government has been gradually shifting towards recognizing the impact of sexual violence in the country.
Nash said that when she went to a male-dominated Ottawa after being elected to parliament, there was almost no conversation happening about how to deal with issues like gender-based violence, racism and homophobia.
“It was shocking that one of the most powerful institutions in our democracy was so lacking,” said Nash. “I think, now, our Parliament … is starting to take basic baby steps towards dealing with something that frankly, as a major institution, they should have been dealing with decades before.”
Nash also said that it is important to have conversations about these issues to ensure that it is not overlooked by government officials.
Panellists also discussed the #MeToo movement’s impact over the past year.
“[The movement] allowed women to feel empowered about speaking out on their sexual harassment experiences,” said Yance.
“What this movement was giving to society was this revelation that sexual violence and harassment wasn’t just a personal thing, it wasn’t just happening in workplaces and it wasn’t just happening in Hollywood. It was happening everywhere.”
Taha, a TV screenwriter and author, discussed the impact of #MeToo and the difficulty of navigating situations of sexual violence in the entertainment industry.
Taha said that even when working in a “post-#MeToo environment,” it is difficult to feel completely safe because there aren’t real structures or official standards about dealing with these issues.
“I’m in an industry in which there are no laws and no rules in many ways,” said Taha. “It makes it very difficult to determine what constitutes harassment or inequality in a job … that prides itself in being in a creative industry.”
Msosa, from Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education, said that although the #MeToo movement has sparked a wider conversation about sexual misconduct, discussions and actions dealing with sexual violence date back much further than the movement itself.
“There are so many people who have been working on these issues for many years,” said Msosa. “The #MeToo movement has created and mobilized a conversation that is happening, but when we say that it starts with #MeToo, we are erasing the work of many marginalized folks.”
“I really want us to challenge the idea that these conversations are just conversations or that they’re new—because they’re not,” said Msosa.
All panelists stressed that sexual violence is a systemic issue that must be responded to with an increase in equality and social equity.
Yance added that having this open dialogue on sexual harassment and violence is an important step, but it won’t stop people from facing it every day.
“Sexual violence is going to continue to happen and what we need to see now with this dialogue is that it will live alongside policies, laws and actions that are going to be preventative of sexual violence.”
“We need more than dialogue. We need action.”