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London adopts U.N. sexual violence strategy. Should Toronto?

Last Updated Sep 20, 2017 at 7:31 pm EDT

Approximately one in four women will experience sexual harassment in their lifetime, but one Ontario city is hoping to change that.

London, Ont., has become the province’s first city to adopt the United Nation’s sexual violence prevention strategy.

London city council voted unanimously on Tuesday night to become a “safe city,” committing to investing in policies to prevent sexual assault and harassment in public spaces.

“Sexual assaults in 2017 in London and communities across Ontario and Canada unfortunately are still happening,” London’s Mayor Matt Green said. “We need to work together to find a way to make sure our community is safe our public spaces are safe and I think this initiative will help us get there.”

The idea came about after Anova, an organization that supports sexual assault victims, conducted a survey revealing many residents were experiencing sexual harassment on transit, particularly near the city’s university campus. The organization will now spearhead the committee that will develop a five-year plan, looking at public spaces like bars, classrooms and workplaces.

According to Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, London has one of the highest rates in Canada of sexual assault cases being dismissed.

She said London’s vote to adopt the U.N. safe cities report “has got to go deeper than a pledge.”

“We have to guard against it being a superficial, sounds good to the media, moment. We need to link that pledge with some deeper questions about how cities are structured.”

She noted that a city’s built environment and public services — or lack of them — influence how women experience their cities and neighbourhoods.

“Things like dark street corners, transit areas that are only served every 45 minutes or every hour, where women are alone, waiting for transit,” Dale explained.

“Of course, we know that public violence is only one of the forms of violence that women experience, it’s not actually often the most common form of violence, however it is a huge deterrent to women participating in civic life.”

One of the other challenges, according to Dale, will be harmonizing initiatives between levels of government.

The federal government announced a gender-based violence strategy this summer, pledging $101-million over five years. The Ontario government introduced the Ministry of the Status of Women at the beginning of the year, which is currently conducting a survey to collect information from sex assault survivors.

Dale said there needs to be one table for advocates and stakeholders to meet and lobby on this issue.

With Tuesday’s vote, London joins more than 20 global cities that have taken the U.N. pledge, including Winnipeg and Edmonton.

As to whether Toronto and other cities should take the pledge, Dale said that depends.

“If it’s an authentic engagement with community experts in violence against women who understand the challenges, and if it’s a true self-examination of the places we haven’t actually be as good at responding to the need for support, then yes,” she said.

“I think it’s a great idea to be part of a global compact; to be inspired by each other. But if it’s just window dressing, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.”