May 3, 2021
UCalgary launches new consent training program ahead of Sexual Violence Awareness Month
COVID-19 has impacted the risks of sexual violence, in particular domestic violence, during the pandemic. However, even under normal circumstances, rates of sexual violence remain a concern. In fact, 45 per cent of adult Albertans report having experienced some kind of sexual abuse in their lifetime.
This prevalence underlies the importance of the work that sexual violence-support advocates do, and the need to improve awareness of lasting harm caused to individuals who have been victims.
Since 2018, May has been recognized as Sexual Violence Awareness Month in Alberta, presenting an opportunity for the University of Calgary to engage our community in sexual violence education, awareness and prevention, while underscoring support for survivors.
UCalgary recognizes this month in collaboration with Mount Royal University and Bow Valley College as our campuses jointly share a “Dear Survivor” campaign, the unique supports available to members of each post-secondary institution, and a new consent workshop series co-developed by Carla Bertsch, UCalgary’s sexual violence support advocate.
Workshop looks beyond traditional understanding of consent
Building off the success and learnings from pilot events, the workshops, Rethinking Consent: Creating Communities of Care, seek to build empathy and promote consent in all relationships.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about what we can do differently to change the narrative and invite participants to think about consent work more broadly, beyond just a legal obligation, beyond an intimate partnership,” says Bertsch.
Bertsch and educational development consultant Dr. Kiara Mikita, PhD’16, co-designed the workshops with the idea of moving beyond punitive models to reframing conversations of consent as acts of care.
“We wanted to focus on how to engage all people in a conversation about healthy relationships, individually and collectively,” says Bertsch. “Consent work is something that happens before, during and after all of our interactions, and should be built on compassion and empathy for ourselves and for others. The goal is that consent work is celebrated, not minimized or something we only think about in the moment.”
The two-day workshops will be offered three times in May and are open to students, staff and faculty at UCalgary, BVC and MRU. Find more details here.
Dear Survivor: another way to support those impacted by violence
For the past four years, UCalgary has partnered with BVC and MRU to encourage survivors and allies to share messages of support to those impacted by sexual violence.
Inspired by filmmaker and activist Tani Ikeda’s #SurvivorLoveLetter initiative, Dear Survivor is a chance for community members to share their own messages of hope and courage to survivors through our website, or through their own social media with hashtag #SurvivorLoveLetter.
Messages submitted through UCalgary’s Sexual Violence website will be shared on UCalgary social media channels and directly on the website for community members to see through the month of May.
Awareness still key in education around sexual violence
In addition to formal training and additional ways to support survivors, Bertsch hopes that Sexual Violence Awareness Month will encourage people to seek help.
On post-secondary campuses, prevalence rates are concerning. “Sexual violence affects people of all backgrounds. However, 71 per cent of students on Canadian post-secondary campuses reported witnessing or experiencing unwanted sexualized behaviour in 2019,” says Bertsch, citing a 2019 Statistics Canada report.
Rates of sexual violence were high before the pandemic and they are even higher now. “During the pandemic, folks have been forced into isolation with partners who cause harm,” says Bertsch. “Survivors experienced a significant increase in the severity and prevalence of violence. It can be very difficult to access support when you have little opportunity to be apart from the person who is causing harm.
“I want to remind people that support on campus is still here and is available for people who are experiencing dating and domestic violence. If and when it is safe to reach out, please know that we are here.”
Support for survivors of sexual violence at UCalgary
As the university’s sexual violence support advocate, Bertsch champions the needs and rights of anyone affected by sexual violence and works with students, staff, faculty and postdoctoral scholars. Whether she’s connecting clients to support resources, helping them navigate complex systems, advocating for accommodations or just being there to listen, she provides a safe space where people of all genders, sexualities and backgrounds can find the support they need.
“A positive first response after a disclosure will help someone better seek help, so, above all, I aim to meet those seeking my help with care, compassion, empathy and belief,” says Bertsch, adding that keeping options open to connect both in-person or online is vital.
“Issues around safety have changed during the pandemic, and it’s important for me to make folks feel safe to talk via video or phone. Maybe that means calling while they are on a walk, using a hand signal during a video call to signal safety has changed and we need to change the topic, or dropping the call or video without explanation with a safety plan around what will happen if that occurs. It’s important for me to go out of my way to ensure I don’t cause more harm while responding to requests for support.
If you think you have experienced sexual or gender-based violence, or know someone who has, visit the Sexual Violence Support website for campus and community resources. You can also arrange a confidential consultation with the university’s sexual violence support advocate by confidential email.
For information on mental health resources, visit the Campus Mental Health Strategy’s Get Support web page.