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Sexual harassment excludes women from public life

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March 7, 2018

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I don’t have a lot of memories from elementary school but I distinctly remember submitting an anonymous question as part of my grade 4 sexual education class: “What is rape?” I asked.  I remember that the word confused me -- overheard in adult conversations, in schoolyard whispers, and in my steady diet of daytime soaps and dinnertime news. I don’t remember the answer given by my male teacher though I recall that it wasn’t satisfying to my 9 year old self. It was a technical answer that failed to grasp the enormity of my question.

I was drawn to the women’s rights movement in the 1990s, much to the chagrin of my parents who envisioned my future in business or the academy. Those dreams never materialized because I urgently needed to be an activist.

Barely an adult, I was outraged that I was expected to both accept the fact of male violence while skillfully trying to avoid it. I was dismayed that my community still valued marriage and child-rearing over education and employment. I was astonished that my professional aspirations were entirely dependent on reproductive rights. I felt compelled to do something about it. It’s sad, really, but girls lose their innocence early.

It was only later, through study and activism, that I came to understand violence against women as being about control and women’s exclusion from public life. Patriarchy preserved male privilege– socially, politically and economically. Sexual harassment coincided with women’s increased participation in the academy and the workplace, and like domestic violence, it was designed to keep women in their place. 

This is why I always say that I was a feminist before I was a human rights lawyer.

I was appointed Chief Commissioner shortly before the Jian Ghomeshi trial began. His acquittal was held up as proof of the justice system’s seeming inability to “believe survivors.” Since then, solidarity among women and their allies has plowed through the safety barriers of privilege and silence. Workplace cultures that effectively hid predatory behaviour have imploded one after another. This is the kind of promise the law made, but only social media could deliver.

#MeToo’s lightning speed sweep across class, race, and geography is breathtaking. It’s revealing that in 2018, despite anti-harassment laws being in place for decades, women are still under pressure to deliver sexually in order to advance economically – whether in entertainment, politics or sports. This social movement, delivered by Hollywood stars rather than feminist scholars or lawyers, has closed the door on impunity for the organizations that protect sexual predators. Gone are the days of treating powerful men like children who can’t be expected to do any better.

Or are they? The momentary solidarity offered by hashtag advocacy does not mean that all women are now safe. How will the #MeToo movement help migrant farm workers, Indigenous girls who must leave home for high school, street-involved LGBT youth, university students struggling with mental health disabilities, incarcerated women, and low-wage workers?  Poverty and vulnerability make some women and girls easy prey. How are we going to ensure that its #TimesUp for these women too?

For me, the answer must start with understanding freedom from sexual harassment as a human right. Realizing the freedom from violence is essential to human dignity, equality, and hope. Cultural change of this magnitude requires sustained dialogue, from the pulpit and podium, in the boardroom, and at water coolers and dinner tables across the country.  It requires the equal engagement of men and boys, and honest conversations that avoid strict binaries of victim and perpetrator. And it requires us all to work to end impunity, including seeking legal redress for violation of sexual harassment whether it occurs in the workplace, on campus, in rental housing, or in state care.

Beyond the compelling narrative of sexual harassment as human rights abuse, filing a claim for redress through the human rights process offers survivors unique advantages. Survivors have unparalleled agency to control and shape the case as an applicant in a human rights case.  Proving sexual harassment before a tribunal is not as onerous as in a criminal trial because the allegations must only be proved on a balance of probabilities (rather than beyond a reasonable doubt). Most importantly, the human rights system allows survivors to hold both individuals and institutions accountable, which reinforces the cultural shift towards ending impunity for sexual violence. Beyond monetary compensation (for example, for lost income or therapy), survivors can seek remedies that protect other women from future harm (such as anti-harassment policies, specialized complaints processes, and mandatory training and education).

Though I had never thought about until now, it doesn’t seem fair that understanding rape should be top of mind for a 9 year old child, or that a girl should put aside dreams of leadership in business or the academy to pursue basic equality. We must promise our daughters that they will not be required to endure a seemingly endless loop of violence and shame in the name of progress and future prosperity.  And we must act on this promise now.

Renu Mandhane
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission