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Our education system fails to keep women safe.

CW: sexual violence, assault.

If you are in urgent need of help, please contact your local emergency response services (911) or a crisis support line (like VictimLINK at 1-800-563-0808).

Writer: Vedanshi Vala

Interviewee: Kavita Bassi

© 2021 BOLT Safety Society. All rights reserved.

It has been nearly three months since allegations surfaced that up to 30 women were sexually assaulted at Western University. I don’t know about you, but I’m still reeling from this. As a university student myself, I find it monumentally alarming that such a situation would come to transpire in a community of academics. But while this afore-mentioned community may be pursuing degrees, it is categorically uneducated when it comes to fostering cultures of consent. And while these events may have seemed to be unfathomable and outrageous, the truth is that we are, as a society, failing every single day when it comes to keeping women safe. We fail because somewhere, somehow, we have allowed rapists to run freely, unchecked. These events are unfortunately not anomalies, because every day, assaults on women continue to happen- simply because they don’t make national news, doesn’t mean they don’t happen. As a matter of fact, I recall reading that for every 1,000 cases of sexual assault, only 33 are reported to the police.

An Alum of Western University spoke out about the events that transpired, voicing her disappointment and calling for better efforts to create safer campuses. I had the privilege of sitting down with her for a candid conversation on this topic. Friends- meet Kavita Bassi.

Bassi wrote an article for The Star, which I personally found to be a fantastic read (and you can find it here), in which she discussed the presence of a culture of sexual assault on university campuses, and specifically at Western University. “I speak out against Western because I love Western, [and because] I want to be proud of my alma mater, and right now, I don’t think that I can say I am”, Bassi said. In our interview, Bassi elaborated upon the behaviors she has noticed on campus, as well as the kind of mindsets that need to be changed.

For one, she said that the supposed “big” sexual assaults, if they only happen or are only brought to light sometimes, make people think that the situation isn’t that bad. This mindset results in a blatant ignorance of the smaller, less severe behaviors that amount to these really terrible crimes. I’ll give an example: if someone stole a pack of gum one day, ten years down the road, they may be committing a bank robbery if no one told them their behavior was wrong. Similarly, if a person thinks it’s ok to make sexist jokes, that unchecked behavior turns into groping, into rape, and into murder. If you don’t believe me, just Google “rape culture pyramid”, or have a look at the one I have for you below. At some point, this behavior needs to be stopped to prevent something worse from happening down the line

Bassi pointed out that when men talk about women, this thinking cannot be justified by saying “it’s just a joke”. Group social pressures may also make a person feel like they have no choice but to laugh along, especially if they are the subject of the joke for fear of seeming too ‘uptight’. Saying things like “calm down, you’re overreacting” as a means of dismissing someone’s concerns every time that they speak up when they’re feeling uncomfortable means “you’re not gonna get anywhere, because that person, next time it happens, chances are they’re not gonna speak up”. Bassi also firmly stated that “drinking is not an excuse” for any form of aggression. How people act when they are drunk or under the influence of substances really needs to be talked about, and not just at Western, but at other universities as well. “The more things that you let slide under the rug, the worse that it’s going to get”.

The question, now, is what exactly is the role of educational institutions in fostering a culture of consent? In citing a recent journal article she had read (check it out here if you’re interested), Bassi said that there needs to be some kind of immediate action taken when a survivor files a complaint of sexual violence to remove the alleged perpetrator from the classroom, school, or workplace. Bassi shared the following example on anti-plagiarism to demonstrate how effective strict, preventative policies can be in university: “It’s drilled into you from the second you get there that plagiarism is bad. If there’s even a whiff of plagiarism around you, you will be expelled, you will be banned, you will be blacklisted. Why isn’t that same attitude given to literal, actual, bodily assault?” This really puts things in perspective. Why is it that other issues (which are undeniably important, but in a different way) are given so much emphasis while issues that directly affect student well-being and safety are not being taken as seriously?

Bassi also talked about how students can look out for each other on campus, stating “how easy it is to fall victim to the misogyny” imbued in campus life. “The biggest thing [...] is to listen openly” when someone holds up a mirror to tell you that “you were wrong”, and to really make a genuine effort to process the discomfort which can arise from discussing these topics. “It’s okay if you were complicit [in these systems], the point is that now you are learning, and you’re acknowledging, and you are accepting, and you are becoming better.” Bassi further iterated that “accountability starts when you recognize that something was wrong”, and this is a way for both students and faculty to hold each other accountable to not perpetuating stigma and harmful, victim-blaming narratives. “You have to be comfortable with that spectrum of emotions”, be it rage, guilt, or despondence, “because the only way that you can ever move forward, and actually begin constructive dialogue, begin safe dialogue, begin effective dialogue, is if you acknowledge where you’re at first.”

As a current Law-school student, Bassi said she was “really happy with the way that the University of Windsor have conducted themselves so far, in terms of diversity training, in terms of what to do in cases of sexual violence or aggression, every law student is required to take bystander training”. Moreover, Bassi added that “in orientation, it was made so clear that classrooms were safe spaces, and I did not see that to as much of an extent at Western” except in classes offered by the Department of Women’s Studies. Bassi also talked about her own research into why not as many women graduate from STEM programs, or pursue them in higher education, and she said that this has to do with “the sexist undertones of the things they would hear in class”. Bassi further shared her exasperation at “the amount of slight aggression that women have to go through on a daily basis, and the way it gets worse the higher up you get”. Felicitating the efforts made by her current university to stop such behaviors, Bassi said that, “even if it helps one woman from falling out of the pipeline, it’s gonna make a difference”.

One woman at a time, maybe everyone who wants to, can achieve their dreams.

Bassi said that while she would like to be optimistic and able to say that the world is changing, she said that in the aftermath of the terrible events at Western, “so many people are gonna be like ‘oh man, that was awful, that shouldn’t happen again’, but then they’re gonna go back to their daily lives, and go right back to ‘oh, that’s just a joke’”. It needs to be understood how these jokes contribute to such calamities. “Something that I think is really important for undergraduate students”, Bassi said, is to not “be afraid to check your friends [because] behavior like this can run rampant because it is condoned in friend circles, even if one person knows it's wrong”.

It is hard to hope for a world where every single woman can be safe. But rather than to be discouraged entirely, we need to accept that change will start slowly before it can speed up exponentially. We must cherish the smaller milestones, which are in fact monumental, like even one young woman walking back safely to her dorm. When we say that change starts with one person, this means that if even a single individual made sure she got home safely, then therein lies the start of a victory for humanity.

Further reading:

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, please call your local emergency services (9-1-1), or learn about other options (like shelters and crisis lines) in the Safe Hubs category of this platform.

This post is part of a spotlight series on the BOLT Safety platform called 'Spotlight: Perspectives', where members of our community can use the platform to discuss issues that matter to them, related to personal safety, violence, discrimination, abuse, access to basic resources, and mental health. Do you have a perspective to share on safety? We'd love to hear from you! Contact us through our website, or dm us on any of our social media platforms!


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