We Won’t Keep Quiet On Gender-Based Violence

[The following text is adapted from a speech at YWCA Toronto’s December 6 Vigil on the National Day of Action on Violence Against Women, 2017]

When Dela asked if I would share a few words, it did not take much convincing for me to say ‘absolutely’. However, the truth is, I have been struggling to figure out what to say. How do we acknowledge and honour women who have experienced violence in a way that feels like it is ‘enough’.

2017 has been a hard year. We continue to see an over-representation of murdered and missing Indigenous women, women we cannot even add to this year’s femicide list because they have not been found and they have not been identified even further removing their personhood. We have seen countless women come forward describing their experience of sexual violence at the hands of powerful men. We have seen organizations like Planned Parenthood financially threatened under the current United States government. There has been ongoing racial targeting and deaths of people in the Black community.

Even when we look locally, it took only minutes to conjure the names: Virgil Jack, a Black woman found murdered in Toronto. Alloura Wells, a trans-woman who had been missing for too long before police took her case seriously, found dead in Toronto. Marlene Bird, an Indigenous woman who was brutally assaulted and recently succumbed to the impact of her injuries. And, as recent as last week, Tess Richey, who was found murdered near Church and Wellesley. So, it has been hard. And it has been heavy.

However, these past few years – and this year in particular – has demonstrated movements in magnitudes that we have not seen before. Even through adversity. In fact, in direct confrontation with adversity. In Peru, the Miss Peru pageant became a place of protest when candidates, rather than name their body measurements chose to name stats on gender based violence. The #MeToo campaign, which actually originated in 2006 to ‘promote empowerment through empathy’ among racialized women who had experienced sexual violence, particularly those in vulnerable communities, has most recently exploded. It is now a worldwide campaign with more than 4.7 million people using the hashtag and also expanding to YWCA’s #NotOkay campaign. And, as recently as today, Time Magazine named the Silence Breakers (part of the #MeToo) as the 2017 Person of the Year.

These past few years – and this year in particular – has demonstrated movements in magnitudes that we have not seen before. Even through adversity. In fact, in direct confrontation with adversity. 

Idle No More called for a National Day of Action on July 1st to really challenge Canadians about what Canada’s 150th anniversary means. Black Lives Matter shut down Yonge and Bloor to protest the deportation of Beverly Braham, who had recently given birth to her child. The Women’s March: where worldwide participation was estimated at 5 million people with a total of 673 marches on all seven continents including 29 in Canada and specifically, 60,000 people in Toronto alone. And, in November, YWCA Toronto participated in an event organized by YWCA Canada to bring together YWCAs from across the country to show unity on the need for a gender-lens in the federal housing strategy.

How the impact of these campaigns and these rallies will be translated into social reform, new policy, new practice is yet to be determined. And although I would be lying if I did not still sit in the heavy and hopeless some days, I also watch as generations of people take up space in new and different ways and change what protest and reclamation looks like.

I wonder if we are starting to move into the next generation of feminism. One where intersectionality is not a concept, but a practice, one where we can move to reconciliation by first owning the truth of history, where we see women as agents of change, where being a collective or a sisterhood is not tokenistic or silencing but rather motivating and inclusive. We are stronger with diversity. We are stronger together. So, yes, we wait to see whether there is political change, whether there is philosophical change but we do not stand idly by. We won’t keep quiet.

Nina Gorka is the Director of Shelters & Girls’ & Family Programs at YWCA Toronto