Speech from the January 29th “Is Rape Culture in Politics?” panel.
My name is Irene-Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer and I am the Executive Director at Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre, WAVAW. I came to feminism by way of my being a student at Concordia in Montreal in 1989 during the Montreal Massacre. This event changed my life and I have been working with women and youth since 1990 and have been at WAVAW since 2004.
WAVAW works from a feminist anti-colonial, anti-oppression framework. The demand for support from women who have been sexually assaulted and wishing to access our services continues to increase year after year. We received over 3000 calls on our crisis line last year.
Why would I start with the reality of our center you might ask…well, I am not here today to talk about individual women’s experiences of rape in rape culture; instead the intention of my presentation is to expand on what rape culture is and how we experience it from an organizational perspective as a Rape Crisis Centre in the anti-violence sector for the past 30 years.
A rape culture is a complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. As a culture we have become desensitized to the horrors of rape and sexual violence. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. This is mostly perpetrated by men, yet women and victims are blamed and asked to be responsible for preventing the violence themselves. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm and sexual violence as a fact of life. However, what we accept as inevitable is, in fact, the expression of values and attitudes that can change.
The insidious nature of rape culture lies in its pervasiveness, as it permeates all aspects of society especially the very structures of politics. Rape culture as the norm is cemented by politics through policies and practices. We have experienced devastating impacts on the anti-violence sector and on all women through backlash from all levels of government.
Feminist activism has demanded accountability and action from political leadership. This demand has been at the very core of our attempts to shift society. We want to change attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, supported by rape culture at the individual level, BUT most importantly at the structural, institutional level where power is centralized. This is the level at which, if attitudes, beliefs and behaviours were changed and integrated, it could change rape culture.
The backlash to undo gains of the women’s equality agenda has been startling to say the least.
We are witnessing how rape culture actually plays out in the real world. On the actual structures that we have fought for in order to keep issues related to women alive (and to keep women alive).
This is what we know:
- The current Harper regime closed down 14 of the 16 Status of Women Canada (SWC) offices. This was an entity focused on women’s rights and the equality project formally and substantively. The name Status of Women is instructive in itself.
- The equality mandate was removed from SWC, an erasure of the reality of women’s aspirations of change in all areas of life. This formally blocked collective resistance to institutional, structural, systemic power at all levels of politics. We can’t advocate for women. Period.
- Research is not funded. Since 1993 there has been no research on Violence against Women from SWC. When we are trying to support the case for anti-violence funding we have nothing to use.
- The court challenges program was abolished which had provided funding for women like Sharon McIvor to challenge Matrimonial law for Indigenous women. Again, no challenges are supported!
Now this did not happen without huge protests from women and men across Canada. There were sit-ins in some cities, rallies, protests across the provinces and territories, letter writing campaigns, and other forms of protest and outrage including a coalition of women serving agencies that came together from across BC and met with the Conservative Minister of the day as well as the Liberal opposition leader at the Sheraton Wall Centre to loudly protest, advocate and lobby to rescind the SWC cuts. To date we are not aware of any women’s groups who have been allowed to meet with Prime Minister Harper.
Provincially, the cut to women’s services is even more distressing.
- Closing of the only free standing Ministry for Women’s Equality in BC resulted in the women’s agenda being erased. The various programs and funding to attend to the needs of women, including a strategy to end violence, was decimated and women are no longer even a special interest group. We are not at the table!
- De-funding of women-serving organizations across the province led to the closing of centres in Kelowna, Vernon, Cranbrook, and Comox, and destabilized all other centres through the loss of operational funding.
- There were cuts to women services federally and provincially which also included health services like Positive Women’s (HIV/AIDS) organizations.
- We see deep and horrific cuts to the Federal Refugee Health programs that predominantly impact women who have escaped countries where sexualized violence and war have been a reality.
- The current funding situation has not changed since 2004. We have not seen any additional funding.
There are so many more examples of cuts to women’s services.
This leaves women’s organizations unsupported. This leaves our anti-violence organizations with unacceptable waitlists. Some have a wait of up to 2 years for one to one counselling. These are services that women are asking for after surviving sexualized violence!
Remember that in this political system, tax dollars paid to governments are through women’s work, women who require critical essential services like sexual assault services, are being denied those services that they are actually paying for.! This is the politics of a rape culture in action!
The most egregious example of rape culture in politics took place right here on this unceeded Coast Salish territory just this past year in the form of the Missing and Murdered Women’s Commission of Inquiry.
After decades of Indigenous and non-Indigenous women being murdered in our midst, the provincial government was pushed to conduct an inquiry. This inquiry was problematic from the start and was not what was asked for, resulting in a very narrow set of 4 terms and conditions. The commissioner did grant standing to social justice and women’s organizations and coalitions and recommend that the government provide funding for their participation to be possible.
However our provincial government refused.
They refused to concede even though Indigenous women and their allies protested and rallied every Monday during the inquiry on the corner of Georgia and Granville. We protested the incredible political violence that continues to impact all women.
This is rape culture in Politics.
Needless to say that all of the expenses incurred by the police and the state were paid! There’s always money for that!
In closing, politics must be about valuing women and in this rape culture it is clear that we do not value women.