January 6, 2015
by Cynthia Spring
This Thursday, January 8th, Jian Ghomeshi is scheduled to appear in court to face numerous sexual assault charges. On the same day and in the same courtroom, five feminist activists will face charges after demanding more safe shelter space for women and trans street-involved people. The irony of this situation is all too clear. On the same day that our justice system will judge one powerful celebrity for his acts of sexual assault, it will also question five women who called on the city to help prevent violence against women. While we hope that the Ghomeshi case continues to generate important conversations about rape culture, and ends in justice for his victims, another story also needs to be heard.
On November 25, 2014, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a group of five women were arrested for refusing to leave a Shelter Support and Housing Administration office in downtown Toronto. These women were demanding that the City of Toronto open up more shelter beds and a 24-hour drop-in for women and trans people. Upon their arrest, some of the women were treated violently by the arresting officers, sustaining bruises and back injuries while being called misogynistic names. All five women have been charged with multiple offenses for participating in this sit-in.
The commitments that these activists were calling for, as part of an ongoing campaign organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, have already been approved by Toronto City Council. Due to bureaucratic delays, however, the opening of these safe spaces and adequate shelters for women and trans people has been put off again and again. In Toronto, many shelters are reaching capacity every night, and close to 90,000 households remain on wait lists for affordable housing. This is now the second winter in which the city has failed to act upon its promise to act.
Safe shelter spaces and affordable housing are integral to the health and safety of women. In addition to serious health risks, brought about by poor living conditions and barriers to accessing adequate healthcare, homeless women face a high risk of violence. Street-involved women are ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted than stably housed women. According to a 2007 community-based study, 21 percent of homeless women who participated in the survey had been sexually assaulted or raped in the past year, while 37 percent had been physically assaulted.
The everyday reality of gender-based violence and sexual assault garnered some much overdue national attention in 2014, generating critical conversations in our mainstream media, our workplaces, our schools, and our homes. Supporting and listening to those who are willing to share their stories is so important to challenging the existing legal and social structures that deny victims of sexual assault justice. Street involved women and trans people also need this support, perhaps more so, if their voices are to be heard. Preventative action against gender-based violence will also require meaningful discussions about the supports and services that can improve the health and safety of all women. Rather than reprimanding feminist activists for demanding positive intervention, the city needs to acknowledge the urgency of this crisis and act now.
Come out Thursday, January 8 to support the women who faced police violence when they called for better services to protect women and trans people. The rally will take place at 444 Yonge Street (College Park Courthouse at College and Yonge) at 9:00 am. For more information about the rally, visit the event page.