For Barb MacQuarrie, universities and colleges are “a big ship to turn” when it comes to how they address issues of sexual violence and harassment.
“Ignoring it doesn’t make it go way; it makes it worse. We need to deal with it in an open way,” said MacQuarrie, director of Western’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.
Based out of the Faculty of Education, the centre recently received $300,000 from the Ontario Government to develop training for campus employees across the province on how to intervene and provide support if they become aware of sexual harassment or violence. The project will help ensure anyone employed by a university or college in Ontario – from top administrators and faculty members to campus staff and volunteers – will be better equipped to handle the disclosure of an inappropriate or violent sexual encounter.
“If someone has been sexually assaulted, they could conceivably disclose that information to anyone with whom they feel some kind of bond,” MacQuarrie said. “Given the uncomfortable nature of the subject, the majority of people wouldn’t know how to handle that. We want to prepare as many people as possible by teaching them how to be supportive and respond appropriately.”
Western’s funding is part of a $1.7-million investment by the province in developing sexual violence and harassment training projects. The initiative, It’s Never Okay, is working toward eliminating rape culture on campuses and creating a safe and respectful school environment.
“In an ideal world, everyone would deem this important to take the time to complete it. But we may not quite be there,” MacQuarrie said. “We don’t have a long history of addressing this in a very open and welcoming way. It’s not something that turns around overnight. We’re dealing with much broader cultural issues. We’re dealing with massive student bodies who have been socialized in ways that are sexist and misogynist. There is a lot to deal with.”
MacQuarrie is leading the development of several interactive, online learning modules by working with a steering committee that includes representatives from several Ontario universities, as well as George Brown College, the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres and the Canadian Federation of Students. The dozen or so modules will use video to show situations where a moment of disclosure occurs, as well as unsupportive and possibly harmful responses, followed by the proper response to the situation.
The modules will be online by September 2017.
MacQuarrie is aware stemming sexual violence is not an overnight fix. She compared the effort to the persistent campaign against drinking and driving.
“Even with much higher rates of awareness, we still don’t have big reductions in the number of actual charges and deaths caused by drinking and driving,” she said. “And drinking and driving is not as complex a social problem as sexual violence. In that sense, we need to stay at them and come at them from multiple directions with multiple stakeholders. The alternative is not very palatable.”
MacQuarrie lauded Western for taking self-imposed initiatives to address the issue of sexual violence on campus, including a revamped sexual violence website, uwo.ca/sexualviolence, and the recently established sexual violence policy.
“There are a lot of caring people at institutions, which has certainly been my experience at Western. But we are at the very beginning of learning how to do this work well,” MacQuarrie said. “This funding and this project are going to go a long way toward helping that change.”