These Are the Heroes In the Fight to End Gender-Based Violence

Though it often feels like we live in the worst episode of 'Dateline' ever, there *are* heroes in our midst. Here, 8 individuals and organizations to celebrate

Canadian advocates against gender-based violence: seven women pose together in business formal clothes

(Photo: courtesy Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund)

The last couple of years have presented us with a seemingly endless roll call of villains to lament and loathe. From serial rapists to sexual harassers to predatory, coercive, masturbatory and/or just preternaturally awful male celebrities, the horror headlines have gone on and on and on and on. (And on!) Though it often feels like we live in the worst episode of Dateline ever, there are heroes in our midst, people who’ve applied themselves to combatting the villains of sexual assault, femicide, structural inequality, sexism and just plain ignorance.

Here are eight individuals and organizations that deserve recognition for their heroic efforts.

A portrait of Nadine Thornhill in a blue and white patterned dress

(Photo: courtesy Nadine Thornhill)

Nadine Thornhill, sex educator

Three cheers for Nadine Thornhill. Over the past year, the Toronto-based educator has used her YouTube channel to teach every module in Ontario’s 2015 health education curriculum—the one the Ford government scrapped this past September out of concern that teaching children about consent, the varieties of human sexuality and the proper names of their genitalia represented was not “age-appropriate.” For Thornhill, the information isn’t controversial, it’s critical. “We’re talking about info that’s related to how we identify, how we understand our bodies, our physical health and the way we enter and conduct relationships.”

The consequences of consciously keeping kids in the dark about human sexuality are all too real and can be seen in the ways many adults conduct themselves. “No wonder we are so dysfunctional when it comes to sexual interactions with other people.” Thornhill doesn’t just preach to the choir, though. She wants her videos to speak to those who’ve been misled about the nature of the content. “It’s not really controversial or radical the way people framed it. A lot of it is very basic and age appropriate if you know how to teach it.”

A portrait of Andy Villanueva in a white sweater.

(Photo: courtesy Andy Villanueva)

Andy Villanueva, filmmaker and activist

Andy Villanueva’s status as an immigrant and her experiences as a survivor of sexual assault are an integral feature of her work as an activist and filmmaker. So, too, is her impressive ability to call out sexist myths and stereotypes rather than internalize them.

Her activism started in high school, when she understood that discussions about uniforms and dress codes were informed by discrimination. She wasn’t alone; her friends Kerin John and Erin Dixon were equally concerned. 

“That’s when we realized that dress codes give context to rape culture to exist in classrooms,” says the now 22-year-old Ryerson University film student.

The trio formed Project Slut, a group that took on sexist policies and culture at their downtown Toronto high school. Project Slut soon began lobbying for the abolition of the dress code (and they were successful). 

Since then, she’s gone on to make a name for herself as an emerging filmmaker. Her short film, Wait for Me—which documents her experience of having an abortion at the age of 15—won the Horizon Award at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It was a deeply personal and painful film to make, but one she felt was necessary in the current climate, especially in the US, where reproductive rights are under fire and undocumented women are vulnerable.

“I didn’t have a lot to offer. I couldn’t monetarily advocate for anybody, and I didn’t have a platform for it. But I had this story…I knew that undocumented women in the States didn’t have a voice and need more solidarity.”

The Sundance Award took Villanneuva to Cannes and then to Winnipeg to work as an assistant director on JT Leroy, starring Kristin Stewart. Now, she’s just wrapped work on her latest film, a documentary on the lives and struggles of Mexican mid-wives in Chiapas. 

Next up? “I want to teach other young people how to do micro-cinema, which is accessible because that’s how I got to go to Sundance and Cannes and work on a film with Kristen Stewart and all this bananas stuff,” she says. “The goal is to encourage people to take on filmmaking and to empower themselves, because people deserve to see themselves as heroes.”

A portrait of Myrna Dawson in a leopard-print top

(Photo: courtesy Myrna Dawson)

Myrna Dawson, director, Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability

For the past 25 years, Myrna Dawson, director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence at the University of Guelph, has been documenting femicide in Ontario. Counting the number of girls and women killed by men each year in the province is not just a necessary tribute to the lives lost, it’s an essential component in revealing the epidemic of violence against women and the various societal and structural factors that perpetuate it. In 2017, after the UN called on all countries to establish entities focused exclusively on collecting data related to gender-based killings of girls and women, Dawson extended that purview, establishing the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability.

One of the Observatory’s core goals is to reveal the ways in which “some women, or groups of women, continue to be marginalized, increasing their vulnerability to femicide” and to highlight stereotypes, attitudes and sexist beliefs that perpetuate harm. It’s painful data to collect and disseminate, but Dawson is encouraged by increased awareness. “There have been transformations in the way society addresses violence against women and girls. The increasing use of the term “femicide” is encouraging on its own. We focus on that and the women themselves, those experiencing violence who have such resilience in many cases.”

A portrait of Charlene Senn in a pink top

(Photo: courtesy Charlene Senn)

Charlene Senn, professor and Canada Research Chair in Sexual Violence, University of Windsor

Few academics that study violence against women can claim to have played a role in reducing incidences of perpetration. But they’re not all Charlene Senn. The University of Windsor professor’s sexual assault prevention program, Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance Program (ESAAA), or “Flip the Script” for short, has been shown to reduce rape by half, and attempted rape by more than two-thirds among participants.

Flip the Script is a 12-hour workshop that teaches first-year university students to to immediately trust their instincts and act on them in situations that acquaintances—a.k.a. the men most likely to assault them—are likely to use in forcing sex. (For instance, what to do if your roommate’s boyfriend insists on coming into your apartment even though you’ve told him she’s not home, and you feel uncomfortable being alone with him.)

“Our whole lives we’ve been taught that the danger comes from strangers, and we’re taught to take precautions that don’t actually protect us but that restrict our freedom,” Senn says. EAAA “flips the traditional socialization script for women on its head, empowering them to trust their own judgment, overcome the social and interpersonal pressures to be nice, and the fear of hurting other people when your own sexual integrity is threatened.”

The program is now offered at campuses in Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, to name a few. And it’s not the only contribution Senn has made to campus safety. Thanks to her work, the University of Windsor was also the first to offer bystander education programming, which seeks to change the culture around perpetrators and thereby reduce opportunities for predation. “There is no magic bullet,” Senn says. “We need to work on multiple fronts.”

The women of LEAF

(Photo: courtesy Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund)

The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund

Wherever a woman’s right to equality, as enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is being threatened, you’ll find the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund fighting to remind politicians and courts of their responsibilities to protect her. Since 1985, the non-profit has intervened in more than 90 such cases, and often before the Supreme Court of Canada in landmark decisions. The nation-wide organization—comprised largely of volunteers, feminist lawyers and legal scholars from around the country—litigates and advocates for equality rights for women and girls across a broad range of areas, from reproductive justice to pay equity.

LEAF has made particularly significant contributions to the evolutions of several Canadian sexual assault laws, including playing an instrumental role in how the Supreme Court of Canada defines consent. “We participated in [R v. Ewanchuk] to emphasize that not only does no mean no, yes means yes…that consent is affirmative and ongoing and can be withdrawn at any time for any reason and that’s the nature of women’s autonomy,” says LEAF legal director Shaun O’Brien. Defending that victory takes up a lot of time and effort, however. LEAF’s legal minds have to continually go to bat against the “pervasive set of myths and stereotypes throughout society” that make their way into sexual assault cases, and that, sadly, find their way into the mouths of ruling judges. Most recently, LEAF has tackled such ideas in the judicial review of Justice Robin Camp—the judge who infamously asked a complainant why she didn’t keep her legs closed to prevent her own rape—and the appeal of the decision to re-try Bradley Barton, the man accused of killing Cindy Gladue.

A portrait of Jackie Stevens in a black sweater and turquoise glasses

(Photo: Courtesy Jackie Stevens)

Jackie Stevens, Avalon Sexual Assault Centre; Halifax

Since 1984, the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax has sought to fill the vacuum in services for survivors of sexual assault, particularly those dealing with historic or childhood sexual abuse. The centre, which takes an explicitly feminist approach to care, has grown with its community over time and helped change the way sexual assault survivors access services throughout the province. In 2000, Avalon launched the first Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program in the province, which is unique from those in the rest of Canada because it’s community-based rather than hospital-based—meaning the focus of care is trauma-informed. SANEs are trained to  provide medical follow-up and perform sexual assault examinations in hospitals (and may also be called to testify in court).

In 2016, working with local youth, Avalon created the “Doesn’t Mean I Owe You/I Don’t Owe You” poster campaign. “It’s a public awareness campaign, but we also use it as a public education tool resource to teach ideas around consent, healthy relationships, and myths and stereotypes around what’s perceived as normal sexual interaction,” says Jackie Stevens, Avalon’s executive director. The concept has inspired other centres to adapt the concept for their own communities, and posters from the project were part of a visual display at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. Most recently, Avalon partnered with LEAF to successfully challenge the acquittal of Bassam Al Rawi, the Halifax taxi driver accused of sexually assaulting an intoxicated female passenger.

A portrait of Constance Backhouse in a black dress, with a scarf around her neck

(Photo: courtesy Constance Backhouse)

Constance Backhouse, director of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa

Your hand will cramp in an attempt to record the number of awards and citations feminist legal scholar and historian Constance Backhouse has received for her work over the past four decades. A pioneering feminist legal voice, she’s never taken the ‘meanwhile in Canada’ approach to looking at Canadian society, but from the beginning of her career has sought to educate Canadians on our country’s dark history of injustice—particularly against women and marginalized groups. Her bibliography speaks volumes. In 1979 she co-authored the very first Canadian book on sexual harassment, Secret Oppression: Harassment of Working Women in Canada; in 1999 she looked at pervasive racism in A Legal History of Racism in Canada. Her contribution to discussions of sexual assault law has been crucial. In her 2008 book, Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, she took a historian’s view of the sexist myths and stereotypes that have defined sexual assault cases and rulings from 1900 t0 1975, calling out both Canadian courts and society for its “appalling failures” of complainants. In her view, societal change and legal reform go hand in hand. “Many Canadians look to law to try to dismantle discrimination. This is a good first step, and sometimes it works. But too many times, the law not only fails to dismantle discrimination, it actively contributes to it,” she says. “And sometimes we make major improvements to law, but on the ground things remain much the same. Canadians need to realize that our society remains riddled with unjust inequalities. It needs to be challenged at many points.”

A portrait of Senator Yvonne Boyer in a pink top and black blazer

(Photo: courtesy Yvonne Boyer)

Senator Yvonne Boyer

Nurse, lawyer, and the first Indigenous person to represent Ontario in the Senate, Yvonne Boyer has lived a few lives. Her experience in the medical profession was formative. “I was a nurse for many years, and I had heard people say that the problem we have with our Indigenous communities is that the women need to be sterilized,” she recalls.

As a lawyer, she’s raised awareness about how racism within the Canadian health care system harms Indigenous people. Recently, she and Dr. Judith Bartlett presented Canadians with conclusive proof that this racism has resulted in horrific present-day human rights abuses. A 2017 report by Boyer and Dr. Judith Bartlett revealed that at least seven Indigenous women in Saskatoon had been coerced or forced into undergoing tubal ligation. The report’s release saw even more people come forward. Currently, 60 women are suing Saskatoon Health Region, the province of Saskatchewan, and the Canadian government, claiming they were coerced, forced or pressured into sterilization.

These claims may just be the tip of the iceberg. “I think it’s widespread across Canada. I don’t know how it couldn’t be. And I’m not 100% sure that it’s only happening to Indigenous women. I think it’s happening to poor women and women that can’t stand up for themselves, women that are vulnerable.”

Senator Boyer aims to speak for the vulnerable. Her first order of business: asking the Senate to consider launching a national inquiry into the forced sterilization of Indigenous women. “I hope that structural changes can be made in our health care system to prevent this from every happening again. I want to see my daughters have children, and my granddaughters.”  


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