I imagine a city where all women and girls are safe, confident, respected at home, on the street, at work, at school. But it is not always the city I see.
I work at The Redwood, where we provide safe haven and support for women and children fleeing many forms of violence. Women speak of death threats and rape by their partners, of being beaten up by neighbourhood bullies because they are not the right kind of woman, of sexual harassment by employers and landlords, of terror at the possibility of being deported because they fled abuse by their sponsors, of returning to abusive partners because their jobs or disability support do not pay enough, they can’t access childcare….
There are many more stories. We listen to each one, offer counselling, a way of framing the experiences, share options and advocate with each woman for the resources she needs to live free from violence. I am inspired by the courage and resilience of women rebuilding their lives and by the many caring individuals in this city who support them.
I am also angry that we keep hearing the same stories over and over. I’ve been thinking a lot about the words on the drawing of the butterfly you see above. Transcend. Transform. Believe. The butterfly and the words are from Helena, a woman who sought safe haven at The Redwood. Along with thousands of other women in this city, Helena is living these words and working hard to transform her life. I am honoured to be a small part of that along with so many others. But the question I am asking myself is what are we all doing alongside Helena to transform policies, laws, and institutions that create the power imbalances and social conditions that make it so difficult and sometimes impossible for women to live free from violence – the many stories we keep hearing?
As I write this, there are new policies on the horizon that are going to narrow many women’s options even further as they struggle to leave abusive situations. Here are just two. The Community Start-up and Maintenance Benefit is ending in January; it is a benefit through social assistance that provides women leaving The Redwood, for example, to pay last month’s rent and to buy beds and dishes, the basics they need to set up a new home. With social assistance rates at an already historic low, many women do not know how they will be able to start over. A proposed immigration law could mean women stay with an abusive partner for the two year period required for the government to validate the marriage.
While many of us provide much-needed support to individual women and children through our work, volunteering and charitable donations, more of us need to engage in dialogue and action that challenge policies that cause such harm. I imagine a city where we embrace difficult conversations, challenge ourselves and speak up – indeed, where we are energized by the prospect of social justice and equality.
Many women and girls like those in The Redwood’s Women on the Move leadership program are doing this each day, in every community in our city, sometimes at great risk. They are challenging the sexism, racism and other forms of systemic power and control that endanger their lives and maintain women’s inequality. And a growing number of men and boys are joining them as allies as they understand that power imbalances and dominance distort everyone’s humanity.
We need to understand, support and be part of this leadership, to amplify it and build authentic partnerships for change. It isn’t easy to grapple with the contradictions and complexity that the transformation of power imbalances and social conditions requires. It is hard work. But it is necessary if we want women’s stories to change.
I imagine a city where all women’s stories are of respectful and equal relationships, economic independence, self-determination, reproductive choice, of living in safe, affordable homes, of being seen as sexual beings and not sexual objects, moving about whenever and wherever without fear of assault and harassment, of feeling safe and powerful!
When all women and girls across Toronto have dignity, justice and self-determination, our city will be a place where everyone will be safer, healthier and have the promise of fulfilling their dreams.