Building a safe place for women

I’d like to tell a story about a woman.

She’s in her fourth year of a Bachelor of Arts. She loves to write. She also loves her partner, and hopes they can one day have a family. She works part-time in a coffee shop and trains for triathlon. Her volunteer efforts include peer support for the Women’s Centre of Calgary and trying to get a similar centre opened at the University of Calgary. She’s white, upper-middle class, intelligent and should be the poster child for liberal feminist gains.

But she’s not.

She knows there’s gender inequality all over the world, including right here in Canada. She’s lived it.

She didn’t use to see this inequality. But just after high school graduation, she got pregnant with her then-partner’s child. She was 18, wanted to see the world and go to university. With the support of her partner and her family, she chose to terminate the pregnancy.

Was it an easy choice? No. Does she regret that choice? No. We all do the best we can.

Her next boyfriend was emotionally and psychologically abusive. He repeatedly used verbal abuse and violence to erode her self-confidence and subordinate her. After she struggled out of this relationship, she began traveling to rebuild her confidence.

In a campground in small-town Mexico, a man attacked and attempted to rape her. She fought him off.

Two years later, at the U of C, the sexual violence implied by a certain nightclub’s advertising triggered memories of this event and left her feeling unsafe on campus. The recent series of attempted abductions compounded this feeling.

All of the above events are examples of gender-specific traumas and leave deep emotional and psychological scars. Survivors live each day with the memory and may never fully recover. These gender-specific traumas disproportionately impact female, not male, students.

There are days when the scars of trauma impede a survivor’s ability to operate in an institution like the University of Calgary. It is false to claim all women have universally equal access to education. Although many women do, many more face the barriers described above, and some traumas that are worse–homophobia, racism, poverty, physical abuse, lack of family support, incest, rape.

These traumas are psychological and emotional barriers to education. Many things on campus can be triggers, from class material to overheard discussions. When that happens, survivors generally need a place to go where they feel safe and accepted, where other women will listen to them if they need to talk, and where they can find information on further services.

Although Counselling Services could help these women, they are overburdened and have long waiting lists. Peer support through Counselling Services does not necessarily fit the bill. For example, if a woman has had an abortion, the last thing she needs to do is talk to someone who may be ideologically opposed to her choice.

The university has an obligation to its students. As we know, the undergraduate population splits roughly 50/50 along gender lines. Given this, the administration and the Students’ Union, both of whom represent student interests, have a responsibility to allocate resources to create a safe space (like a women’s centre) for helping women who face gender-specific psycho-emotional barriers.

There is no place on campus serving this need. We don’t know how many women walk around the U of C emotionally wounded. Why doesn’t the SU and the administration recognize this and step up to help?

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