We all have a responsibility to create safe communities for vulnerable women

By Lori Van Rooijen

CALGARY, Feb. 12, 2014 /CNW/ - Calgary is often heralded as one of the best cities to live in, not only in Canada but in the world. Recent incidents seem to point to a key caveat - it's a great place to live as long as you are not a marginalized woman.

We have come a long way since women did not have the right to vote or the right to an education. And certainly women in other parts of the world face oppression and abuse which is the stuff of nightmares. But Calgary and Alberta still have far to go before women can live without fear of violence and abuse.

Just last week a man accused of raping a woman who was struggling with addiction and homelessness was acquitted by a judge because of the judge's concern with the credibility of the alleged victim.

"This is a classic 'he said, she said' case'" the judge said, indicating believability is difficult, considering the histories of drugs and street involvement of both individuals. The judge said, "lying for each of them is something they do to survive."

The accused in this case was a known drug dealer and faces additional sexual assault charges in a completely separate case. However, the judge observed "the woman admitted she is so addicted to alcohol she would go anywhere, with anyone and do anything for a drink."

In other words, was she asking for it?

A few weeks prior to this case, an arbitration ruling in favour of a woman who was repeatedly sexually assaulted in the workplace by a male colleague was making Calgary headlines. The victim came forward to supervisors up the chain of command again and again and again. In every instance, she was ignored. Her concerns were brushed off. She was made to feel like it was her fault. Even after she hid a camera at her workstation and brought videotaped proof to her supervisors, the evidence was labelled "inconclusive." There were no workplace repercussions for the perpetrator, who has since been criminally convicted and retired with full benefits. Supervisors who failed to act remain on the job.

These stories are remarkable because in both cases what the victims are most deprived of is their power.

Every day at the YWCA of Calgary we support women who are vulnerable because of poverty, family violence and their relegated place on the fringes of our society. We support women with safe places to stay, clothes to hide their scars and supports for their aggrieved children. We help women to build language and employment skills and prepare to contribute to our community.

Lest we forget in our city of great wealth and opportunity that there are many women who are simply not able to keep up with you and me. Many struggle in minimum wage jobs, debating whether to pay the rent or maintain that coveted childcare spot. Others have seen their connections slip away until they find themselves at the doors of the YWCA seeking assistance. Last night, nearly 200 women, many with children, slept under a YWCA of Calgary roof.

One incredibly challenging dimension of the YWCA's work is the restoration of a woman's sense of self worth. After she has been repeatedly told by parents, partners, supervisors and community that her complaints don't register or cannot be believed, supporting her to find her voice is critical.

She is truly every woman but often we serve Aboriginal women, recent immigrants, women of colour and those battling years of trauma, addiction and crippling poverty. Often the women we support tell us they feel invisible, disregarded and off the radar because of the colour of their skin, the balance in their bank account and the appropriateness of their behaviour.

With the support of community, we help women find their voices. However, it's up to the rest of our community to ensure that when they use them to shout from the rooftops that women can be heard and believed. And that we will act.

Collectively, we do have the power to transform this culture and create safer communities so women need not suffer in silence and fear at work, in school and in the community.

Each of us has a role in ending violence. I challenge you to determine what your role is.

Lori Van Rooijen is the chair of the board of the YWCA of Calgary.

Image with caption: "YWCA of Calgary (CNW Group/YWCA of Calgary)". Image available at: http://photos.newswire.ca/images/download/20140212_C9732_PHOTO_EN_36647.jpg

SOURCE: YWCA of Calgary

For further information:

Carla Link
Manager, Communications, YWCA of Calgary
Phone: 403.705.5779
Cell: 587.228.8663
Email: clink@ywcaofcalgary.com

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