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March draws attention to rape culture on UBC campus

Two students organizing a Take Back the Night rally and march on the University of British Columbia's Vancouver campus next week say the recent string of sexual assaults, combined with the Commerce Undergraduate Society's controversial rape chant, point to a rape culture on campus that the administration is ignoring.

But the university says its opened several channels of dialogue with the campus community and encourage students, staff, and faculty to come to them with concerns about campus culture and safety.

A grassroots global movement, Take Back The Night events are anti-violence against women marches that originated in the United States in the 1970s. Although typically women-only events, the UBC organizers Emily Monaghan and Rain invite people who identify as men to attend the rally and march on Wednesday, Oct. 30.

"We really want to focus on male allyship because men are a part of this problem, and by confronting and deconstructing sexism within themselves, and by becoming part of the movement and not impeding upon women's voices and spaces, we want to teach man what good allyship is (and) how they can contribute," Monaghan, a first year environmental science and sustainability student, told The Tyee.

The event's Facebook page already has over 800 people scheduled to attend and hundreds of comments for and against the event that, in the words of the organizers, demands "this continued use of violence against women be connected to men, specifically men who benefit most from patriarchal attitudes and relations of power that were inflicted here by colonists."

Rain, a fourth year sociology and gender studies student, says the issue isn't just the recent sexual assaults on campus or the Commerce Undergraduate Society chant glorifying sexual violence used during FROSH events in September. Rather it's the university's rape culture and the administration's insufficient response.

As an example, Rain cites UBC Dime Watch, a Twitter feed used last year by unnamed UBC athletes to post non-consensual pictures of women, rate their appearance, and make sexual comments about them. The Ubyssey reported UBC Athletics suspended some of the students involved and mandated sensitivity training for others, three months after administration was informed about the website.

While both students recognize the safety messages from administration and the campus RCMP recommending students don't walk alone is prudent as a short-term measure, they say neither bodies are addressing the underlying reasons why women aren't safe on campus.

"There hasn't been any encouragement for students to start speaking about how safe they feel in classrooms, if they go to parties here, and especially if they’re just walking at night," said Rain.

"The first response that they're telling us is don't walk alone at night. They're assuming that we're all able to have people that we trust enough to walk with us, first of all, (and) second of all they're not even addressing people who are contributing to making campus unsafe for us in the first place."

But while UBC administration admits their main focus so far has been practical -- focusing on improving outdoor lighting and extending hours for the campus Safewalk program -- Public Affairs Director Lucie McNeill says VP Students Louise Cowin* is listening to students.

"The administration has been from the very beginning meeting regularly with the Alma Mater Society and the Graduate Students Society. There's an ongoing dialogue with them, receiving some of their feedback regarding issues that they think need to be addressed," she said, adding there has also been communication with campus residence conduits, and administration is monitoring what students are saying about how safe they feel in both the campus and mainstream media.

The Alma Mater Society, who could not meet a Tyee deadline for comment on this story, organized a discussion last night between the Commerce Undergraduate Society, commerce faculty, and the students' union's Sexual Assault Support Centre about addressing sexual violence on campus, which Cowin also attended.

A letter from Cowin was posted on the UBC website today further highlighted her recognition that telling students not to walk alone isn't a solution to the problem but a precaution.

"There is an important discussion to be had around violence against women: what causes it, what enables it, what perpetuates it and what will really defeat it. It is important for this dialogue to continue. But until the attacks stop, we are doing all we can to provide information so you can make choices to ensure your safety," she wrote, adding "Please let me know what we can do better."

McNeill said both she and Cowin are pleased with the dialogue emerging through discussions and events like Take Back the Night. Personally speaking, McNeill added she sees issues with popular culture and its affects on students that need to be addressed.

"There have been periods, definitely, on the part of both men and women, (of) a more feminist consciousness, much more empowered consciousness, and the general popular culture has shifted (to) an odd anti-feminist thing," she said.

"Again these are conversations people have to have, and as a community determine 'What are we prepared to do about it?' This community is amazing: the students are really smart, and they're very engaged -- same thing for faculty and a lot of our staff, etc. If we can start making progress, this is a really good place for it to happen."

*Updated 2:11 p.m. October 26, 2013

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter.

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