Ending the Silence – A Double Pandemic: COVID-19 and Gender-Based Violence

About The Event

The panel discussion, Ending the Silence – A Double Pandemic: COVID-19 and Gender Based Violence (GBV) was a webinar jointly hosted by the Newcomer Students’ Association (NSA) and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), on December 10, 2020. It was part of the annual international campaign on 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, (starting on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ending on December 10, on International Day of Human Rights). Moderated thoughtfully by Sara Asalya, founder of NSA, all three panelists—Cheyanne Ratnam, Salina Abji and Margarita Pintin-Perze—brought their powerful reflections to this discussion.

Globally, one in three women will experience abuse or be subjected to gender-based violence in their lifetime. In Canada, on average every week a woman is killed by her intimate partner. Women are facing this violence simply because they are women. Where are we as a global community today in terms of the rights of women? Have we done enough in Canada?

All panelists began by grounding themselves through sharing their migration beginnings as children of immigrants and refugees to Canada, going on to situate themselves in their professional work in relation to GBV. They noted inequities, as well as an absence of both culturally appropriate services, and of coordinated policy responses leading to systemic failures; and they highlighted the need for differentiated understanding of uniqueness and diversity within the immigrant experience. Cheyanne stated unequivocally that racism in Canada is not a remnant of the country’s colonial past, but is current and ongoing, and that she believes we are closer to the starting point rather than to the finish line when it comes to the prevalence of gender-based violence, be it in Ontario or nationally. Salina asked for states to be held accountable for providing resources, protection, and policy measures to support victims of DV and GBV. Margarita pointed to the continued dehumanization of women, asking who is labelled human, and who has the right to “be human.”

Panelists highlighted the false universality and rhetoric associated with the human rights discourse as these erasures, they claimed, of vulnerable cohorts of women, continue to happen when human rights are systematically denied to racialized, immigrant and refugees, non-status, and indigenous women. Where is the promise of ‘human rights’ then, they asked, and what needs to be in place so that metrics for contextualizing, implementing and measuring these can be realized? 

We can’t talk about combating GBV here in Canada and within the immigrant and refugee community without acknowledging that there are thousands of Indigenous women, trans, and two-spirit people who are particularly vulnerable to violence because of historical and ongoing systemic sexism, racism, and trans/misogyny. How can we build a national advocacy movement to talk about GBV?

Panelists noted the complexities and dilemmas of combating GBV through building a national movement based in solidarity, and with humility, across differentiated experiences of women groups listed above. Particularly, the discussion problematized the need and concerns around establishing mutual and respectful alliances while centering the conversation on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), holding space for these “different” stories of violence to build a Canadian story.

What can purposeful ally-ship, necessary for creating solidarity momentum, look like in this complicated scenario, one rooted in multiple histories and paradoxical narratives? How can immigrant and racialized women, being settlers ourselves, initiate such a coalition, and be there for our indigenous sisters? Given that shared understanding of gendered experience must simultaneously co-exist with differentiated forms of GBV in different communities, an equity (not equality) lens was one of the approaches suggested by panelists when thinking of a national movement, one tempered in equal part by accountability, compassion, and discomfort. The candour these passionate speakers brought forth in each of their responses, and the nuance with which they explored complex multiplicities not only in their own immigrant positionality, but also in the many approaches to understanding and addressing GBV, was a significant aspect of this dialogue.

For instance, to look with self-awareness at the Canadian dream of building a better life that immigrant families carried in their hearts as part of the migration trajectory (as all newcomers to Canada do); and while doing so, to also acknowledge and question one’s own place and complicity within the history of settler colonialism, is certainly a reflexive stance we must take. The immigrant story is so tied in with the narrative of nation-building in Canada—, one requiring of gratitude, especially from those seeking a safe haven here; but the real on-the- ground experiences of racism and microaggressions, sexism and exclusion faced by racialized groups, make them question, “Is this the Canada I signed up for?” What is at stake, and what is the backlash, when immigrants and refugees, racialized individuals and groups, are not adequately grateful for the refuge they received here?

The issue of gender-based violence has always been present in Canadian society, but the GBV crisis during COVID-19 is the new shadow pandemic, with an increase of 20-30 percent of gender-based violence and domestic violence cases since the start of COVID-19, and the number of domestic violence calls to helplines in some regions having increased by up to 400 percent. What do you think are the root causes behind such an alarming escalation in GBV at this time?  

Proposing an intersectional approach, the panelists referred to the disproportionate negative impacts of COVID-19 on racialized women, discussing how the GBV crisis already raging pre-pandemic, further caused inequities and gendered violence to explode in racialized communities in the last few months, women being further left behind by social isolation, loss of critical supports and of employment, in many cases with added threats of deportation being used by partners and employers to further restrict their freedoms. In an environment where physical distancing becomes the norm, formal and informal resources to support women suddenly disappear; what could/should a safety plan for a woman faced with GBV look like? The solution framework, panelists suggested, must go into GBV work with a ‘differential’ approach and an `empathy’ lens, one that has at its center humility and respect for uniqueness. Victim blaming will not do, nor will theoretical insights that do not consider the entire experiential reality of a woman’s circumstances, including factors that often push her to continue staying in an abusive relationship.

Recommendations  

In terms of safety strategies for women seeking escape from a difficult GBV situation, Cheyanne emphasized the significance of a preparedness plan, creating alternative, and covert, ways of sharing information, educating community members to be allies, playing the role of friend or listening ear, but without imposing one’s own ideology or pushing a point of view. Salina talked about system- level solutions, including listening well to grassroots migrant justice movements so that any post-COVID recovery is just, and that people do not have to negotiate between different harms; so that racialized community members can report without fear of impacting their immigrant status. Margarita suggested that GBV be understood and addressed as a social problem, needing a collaborative approach; centering and acknowledging individual experience, and a system- level metrics of support emerging from there. The bystander model was reiterated too, and following on that, the need to create safe spaces at an informal and grassroots level; making sure that structures, both formal and informal, can be created that center lived experience to ensure individuals impacted by GBV have a seat at the table so they can be the experts guiding appropriate solution-building rather than policy people making top-down unrealistic decisions on their behalf.

Part of the discussion were also questions relating to the role of the family unit and of socialization, with focus on elders and younger members of the family, to address issues of toxic masculinity in the home as issues like GBV can hardly be tackled with policy tools alone.

The magic potion of authenticity, self-reflexive courage and passion of lived experience that drove this insightful conversation was indeed one of the special treats in this pandemic year, we urge you to check out the recording of this event below and we hope to see you at our next webinar in February.

Authors: Alka Kumar is the manager of research and policy at the Newcomer Students’ Association.

At Canada’s universities, institutional racism more than a case of a few bad apples

Without comprehensive race-based data, equity policies within Canadian universities have limited impact in adequately addressing discrimination and racism.

As Canadian universities do not collect race-based data, 63 out of the 76 universities across the country are unable to provide a breakdown of their student populations due to absence of data collection,’ despite having diversity offices.

The open letter from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), dated Dec. 18, 2020, castigating Ontario academic and educational institutions for failing to meet the needs of Black, Indigenous, and racialized students in these challenging times, is certainly bold and timely. The position of public censure OHRC has taken on through this statement speaks to our unusual times, and also to the high levels of systemic disarray our educational systems have fallen into.

The COVID pandemic has pushed us all abruptly into virtual spaces, has resulted in what has been coined as “COVID stress”—causing social isolation, adversely affecting our mental well-being, and exposing pre- existing fault lines rooted in systemic racism and pre-existing discrimination. As recent data has affirmed, the pandemic has exacerbated simmering inequities in multiple sectors, pushing marginalized and racialized communities further into precarity. This is especially true for Black, Indigenous, and racialized post-secondary students, who should have the necessary support as they navigate and face institutional and structural barriers and racism. The absence of such support has potential to negatively impact their identity construction, academic success, and sense of belonging, as well as ability to equally and fully participate in all aspects of the Canadian society.

The Newcomer Students’ Association has issued a statement in response to the OHRC letter. In this statement, the group indicated it has “heard multiple accounts of students experiencing racism, discrimination, and xenophobia within Ontario post-secondary institutions.”

The pandemic, however, is certainly not the first instance of the issue of institutional and systemic racism being problematized within Canada’s postsecondary institutions. For instance, a policy brief by Aisha Shibli from the Canadian Arab Institute in 2019 titled, “Dismantling Systemic Racism in Canadian Post-Secondary Institutions: Arab Students’ Experiences on Campus,” indicated that racism and discrimination are inherently embedded within the culture of Canadian universities. Shibli notes that “63 out of the 76 universities across the country are unable to provide a breakdown of their student populations due to absence of data collection, despite having diversity offices.” This is a key factor as to why existing equity policies within Canadian universities tend to have an inadequate impact in effectively mitigating and dealing with existing institutional discrimination and racism. And it supports existing evidence suggesting that by and large Canadian universities are not essentially meeting their instituted legal obligations and general commitments guided by their anti-discrimination policies as well as the broader national institutional standards.

Olivia Bowden, in her CBC News article, “Canadian University Students Use Instagram to Reveal Racism on Campuses,” draws attention to lived experiences of racialized students with racism noted in the media. She points out dozens of Instagram accounts created by students and alumni of colour in 2020 at various universities Western University, Queen’s University, York University, McGill University, Concordia University, Dalhousie University, the University of Ottawa, and the University of British Columbia to name a few, as well as in various high schools across Canada to share stories of racism and abuse. These accounts are providing an outlet for students and are aimed at holding their respective institutions accountable, calling for immediate action by the schools.

Moreover, the existing systemic racism poses a barrier to hiring, advancement, retention, and full inclusion of racialized students, as well as employees within postsecondary institutions. A 2019 report by Universities Canada shows that, while the percentage of women in senior leadership positions is now almost proportionate to that of men, racialized people represent only eight percent of senior leaders and 21 percent of full-time faculty. Representation matters, for many reasons. For example, as the popular adage goes, “if you can see it, you can be it,” to other robust arguments that real inclusion and diversity are essential at all levels of an organization, as that can mean huge and paradigmatic changes in thinking, leadership, and structures.

As we devise a post-pandemic recovery plan, we need to move beyond just “talk” and into actionable and meaningful change that focuses on implementation—for instance, creating safe spaces for full engagement, designing robust reporting and case management procedures, and moving from performative equity, diversity, and inclusion policies to ensuring effective support and mentorship processes. Certainly, further evidence is needed when it comes to creating optimal strategies for success and resilience of racialized students within post-secondary education, to assist faculty and staff to improve their pedagogy, and support resources and programs. We’re in dire need for transparency and accountability in policies related to employment equity and inclusive hiring.

Authors: Alka Kumar is the manager of research and policy at the Newcomer Students’ Association. Mojgan Rahbari-Jawoko is an instructor at Ryerson University. Sara Asalya is the executive director of Newcomer Students’ Association.

This article was originally published by The Hill Times on January 4th, 2021.

NSA statement in response to OHRC letter to universities and colleges on racism and other human rights concerns

On behalf of the Newcomer Students Association (NSA)—an Ontario-based provincial organization working at the intersection of migration, education, and social justice, and a platform committed to promoting inclusion and equity for post-secondary newcomer, immigrant, and refugee students—we support and endorse the open letter issued by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) on Dec 18, 2020. We endorse the criticism levelled in the OHRC statement and welcome the specific measures they recommend to protect the human rights of Black, Indigenous, and racialized students. 

In this open letter that goes out to all Presidents and Principals of post-secondary educational institutions in Ontario, OHRC brings attention to media stories, social media posts, and communications received by them directly from students and student groups who have reported experiences of racism and fear, with an increase in acts that violate students’ human rights to access a safe educational environment. We at NSA, based on our relationships with the student community, have heard multiple accounts of students experiencing racism, discrimination, and xenophobia within Ontario post-secondary institutions. We have also learned about our student community’s frustration at the lack of institutional responses to these issues. These experiences are not new, but racism is ingrained in our society and institutions. It has surfaced more starkly during, and was exacerbated by, the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that the last few months of living with COVID-19, with reliance primarily on virtual platforms for learning and socializing, has led to racialized students feeling doubly isolated, marginalised and discriminated against. We acknowledge that sadly, there has been little recourse to much-needed institutional support to help students deal with the unique situations they are currently experiencing. 

Notably, the OHRC letter highlights the serious nature  of these concerns, pointing to the challenges experienced by racialized students as a sign of institutional failure. Such institutional failures have led to a lack of redressal of complaints in the absence of policy mechanisms to evaluate and prevent perpetration of future discriminatory acts. OHRC urges “directing minds” of universities to take positive action by instituting “transparent, accessible and formal structures to promote compliance with human rights law and principles, including comprehensive complaint mechanisms to foster a culture of human rights accountability.” While NSA is saddened by the racism and pervasive systemic challenges our racialized learning community is currently facing, we feel supported by the OHRC acknowledgement. We urge the academic community, all educational institutions, and other stakeholders to come together and take action to ensure that all learning and societal spaces are respectful, equitable, and free of any discrimination.  

In solidarity,

The Newcomer Students’ Association