SHIFT: An interview with Kasari Govender
By Sarah Rossi, Marketing and Communications
Douglas College will be facilitating discussions on sexual violence, intimate-partner violence, masculinity and more with SHIFT: Let’s talk gender violence Sept. 24-28 at the New Westminster Campus.
The event will engage attendees through film, dialogue and interaction with community stakeholders in a safe and inclusive space. Each night will feature a documentary that addresses themes related to gender violence and will conclude with a discussion facilitated by the filmmaker or a faculty member.
On Sept. 28, Douglas College will host a panel discussion on Violence against Women: Divisiveness, Power and Control, the Legal Landscape and the Role of Men.
Among the panelists for this discussion is Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF – a legal organization working towards gender equality for women and for other people impacted by gender-based discrimination. Prior to the panel discussion, Govender sat down with Douglas College for an interview about the work she does with LEAF and her insights on the conversation surrounding gender violence.
Tell us about the work you do in gender violence.
I am the executive director of an organization called West Coast LEAF. We are a legal organization working towards gender equality for women and for other people impacted by gender-based discrimination. Our focus is not solely around gender violence but, of course, a lot of what we do touches on issues of gendered violence.
We have a big project called “Dismantling Barriers to Reporting Sexual Assault” where we are working with stakeholders at every stage of the justice system – from first-responders to lawyers and the judges. In particular, we are working on how the credibility of women is assessed in that context and why women are not believed. Even though the facts show that it’s a myth that women make up sexual assault. For the most part, sexual assault does not have higher rates of false reports than other crimes – perhaps less.
“Only Yes Means Yes” is another project we are working on at post-secondary campuses across the province and we are now working at developing an online tool to communicate some of the legal developments and what the law has to say about consent.
Finally, as we are a legal organization, we go into the court and we work on making change through law reform and we also do public legal education. On the litigation side, we are suing the provincial government and the Legal Services Society, which is our legal-aid society, and we are arguing that they are not providing adequate legal aid for women who are facing violence in their relationships.
What are the key points that you think we need to talk about to move forward?
I think we are at an important point on the national and international stage with conversations around the #MeToo movement. And certainly part of that is simply raising awareness and dispelling myths. We have many myths as a society that infiltrate our justice system and our intimate relationships, including that women are keen to make up allegations of sexual assault, what a women’s typical reaction should be and that if women don’t report right away, then it must not have happened. And from our research, we know that is not true. Women don’t report right away often, women process trauma in many different ways, including through silence or by blaming themselves, and it doesn’t mean that what happened was consensual. So, I think that continuing those conversations and having them publicly, like we are, is an important way to dismantle some of those myths.
I tend to work less on the public conversations and more on how we change law and policy, but I do think that a culture shift is required, and these big, high-profile cases are significant.
How has the conversation changed in the last year?
I think there are a couple of different sides to it. One is that I think there has been this real rise in awareness in how common this experience is. And, even for women themselves, the story of how many times and how many women I know, when they finally did post “me too” on their social media, they said, “It took me a little while, because I haven’t really experienced it in a horrific way, and I didn’t want to usurp other people’s experience who have.” But, if what we are talking about here is sexual harassment, then of course I have experienced it, and I think we should all say that if we have.
So that realization, that we are all part of this conversation, because we all experience this kind of discrimination and forms of violence was an important piece of progress.
On the flipside, I think there has been a real backlash. This new conversation hasn’t been without its problems. I think that we are now facing the backlash of a men who say we no longer have such a thing as flirting in our society or that all men are going to be seen as criminals and so men have to be terrified in how they interact with women or asking what happened to innocent until proven guilty.
Of course in a court of law people are innocent until proven guilty, and that hasn’t changed, nor should it. But because we know that most women are harassed, we know that this is a very common experience, and many of us know men who are serial harassers, this is a way of telling the world that we don’t have to just accept that.
Are there things that make you hopeful?
Yes. Seeing powerful men being held accountable through the #MeToo movement shows that men can’t just get away with impunity and I find that hopeful. I find hopeful some of the more sophisticated conversations that I heard from people talking about gender, and gender-based violence. I’ve worked on feminist issues for my whole life to some extent, as many of us have, and I think it’s often not an issue that people talk about. People sort of consider it old news. So the recognition that this isn’t old news and that it impacts all of us on a daily basis, even in fairly progressive, developed places is a really positive development.