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Can Initiatives to Prevent Violence Against Women make Long Lasting Change?

By Sanaa Humayun

The UN Safe Cities project is an international effort launched to tackle the sexual violence women face on a daily basis. Edmonton, in an attempt to do just that, has signed up for this initiative – and I am skeptical.

I was asked by a colleague to participate in a focus group for this project, to discuss sexual violence in Edmonton’s public spaces in a safe and private atmosphere. I joined the group not knowing what to expect. The discussion was good and productive – a comprehensive way for the project to fundamentally understand how sexual violence affects women in public spheres, and specifically in Edmonton’s public areas. The women running the workshop were kind and quiet. They prompted us with questions, but mostly let us recount our experiences at our own pace while they listened. I was struck by the sense of solidarity in the room; though I knew no one there, I felt bonded over the bitterness of our shared experiences, of our shared understanding of the violence we all knew so intimately.

And though I left that discussion feeling vindicated, justified in expressing a pain that is often disregarded, I also left with a bitter taste in my mouth. No matter how thoroughly the project was researched, no matter how thoroughly it’s proved that sexual violence is perpetuated in public spheres, sexual violence is so entrenched within the fabric of our society, so deeply rooted in our hierarchies of power – can initiatives like this one even begin to create long term change? Is it possible to do so without dismantling the systems that perpetuate and legitimize this violence?

The UN doesn’t actually have any legal power to create change – it would be disingenuous to say that the UN cannot spur change, and it can certainly shame countries on an international stage, prompting them to join this initiative. But how effective is change spurred on by shame? If a country/ city joins simply to save face, the changes made will remain on a surface level.

Sexual violence is a deep, fundamental issue within our society, both within the private and public sphere. The two go hand in hand, with violence often beginning in more “innocent” forms in the public spheres, like catcalling, and moving to become more violent within the private sphere. It is important to tackle the building blocks, these acts of aggression within the public sphere that normalize this violence.

This initiative is based in the fact that violence against women in the private sphere is acknowledged as abuse, and so it is essential to do the same with public displays of sexual violence.  However, acknowledging violence against women in the private sphere as abuse has not actually rectified it as a problem – the systems that allow this violence to continue are still in place. Acknowledging the abuse hasn’t actually helped the women who need help to seek it, especially when considering that help must often be sought through legal systems- which are often inherently complicit in this sexual violence. From Canadian judges that tell women to “keep their legs together”, to an Edmonton police force that leaves countless women (including myself) wary of interacting with them, unsure if they will help me or my aggressor, women in Edmonton (and worldwide) know one thing – the system works against us.

I want to believe that long-term change is achievable. Though I am skeptical, I truly hope that initiatives like this can actually create safer cities for women. However, I don’t think this can be done without acknowledging that, ultimately, the sexual violence women face in Edmonton is rooted in our patriarchal society – our systems of power work against us, and without addressing that, without attempting to dismantle it, initiatives such as this one are simply band-aid solutions to an incredibly pervasive problem.

Photography courtesy of Alan Paone. 

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