The year-long process to update Dalhousie University’s lacking sexual violence policy is finally entering its end stages.
Dal’s sexual violence policy has come under fire in recent months, most notably from Our Turn, a national student-led coalition against sexual violence on campus that gave Dalhousie a D+.
A committee formed to create the policy had already been working on the policy at the time Our Turn gave them the rating, but the DSU members involved in creating the policy weren’t ready to speak about it until the first draft was made public.
“So, the formal discussion started happening in the fall of 2016,” said Arig al Shaibah, Dal’s vice provost of student affairs who joined the school in the spring of that year.
“So there were some conversations on campus at the administrative level about […] taking a look at having a standalone sexual violence policy because other universities and the legislation – the province – was looking at this.”
Al Shaibah says its important for the school to have a standalone policy on sexual violence, and to make sure that it is properly named.
“The first policy we had was called ‘sexual harassment policy,’ and it dealt with sexual assault. So right off the bat there – obviously the best practice now is thinking about sexual violence and the continuum broadly. So, the naming of the policy is an important change. Calling it a sexual violence policy, or potentially a sexualized violence policy, covers all kinds of behaviour that would fall under that, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.” she said.
“The other big improvement in having a standalone is having a little bit more clarity about what happens from beginning to end: right now, there’s a few multiple places where there’s sexual harassment policy, and then there’s a student code of conduct for student respondents, and then there’s HR policies for employees, and then there’s the senate disciplinary committee that describes the adjudication. We’re trying to create one policy, a single place that helps people understand what happens, from beginning of complaint to adjudication.”
Amina Abawajy, the president of the Dalhousie Student Union, says that there are other important changes that should be made to the new policy too.
“There was, for example, the basic omission of the word survivor. And so they talk about what it means to have a policy that is survivor-centric whenever possible, but haven’t defined what it means to be survivor-centric,” she said.
Another important point for Abawajy was that the current policy didn’t provide a place for students to appeal – or really have any say in – the process. She hopes the new policy will provide one.
Fortunately for Abawajy and all Dal students, al Shaibah is making sure that this policy will be open to input from everyone at the school before it becomes official.
On Nov. 24, an email was sent to all Dal students a draft of the policy with a link to a survey for students to provide input. It also listed three opportunities with times and locations for meetings on campus to discuss the upcoming policy.
These three “feedback sessions” were scheduled for the following Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday after the Friday afternoon email. The online survey was open for just one week, and received just under 100 responses.
There were four male, law students representing the Dalhousie Student Advocacy Services and one student at the first feedback session. Many students were busy with exams and final projects, and didn’t have time to properly review the draft policy, let alone provide input on it.
For this reason, the process has slowed. Al Shaibah had originally hoped that the first vote on the policy would take place before the end of the first semester, but now she says there will be more opportunities for students and staff to provide input on it in the new semester.
“I think that delay is okay. It’s coming from the community. The community members really want to have a chance to weigh in and make sure that whatever we’re putting together is just something that everyone is comfortable with,” she said.
Abawajy agrees with al Shaibah that it’s important to introduce the new policy at a rate that lets everyone who wants to have their voice heard actually be heard.
“It’s very important that there is a policy that address sexualized violence, but it’s very important that we take our time and consideration with it. So I’m glad that the university is deciding to do that,” says Abawajy.
She also wants Dalhousie students to speak up if they feel like they have something to say.
“We know that one-in-five women will be sexually assaulted during their time on campus, and we know that rate is much higher for those who are further marginalized, whether it’s racial identities, students with disabilities, trans students,” Abawajy said. “It really is important that students have a say. I think the overwhelming amount of feedback they have received is quite telling, and students want to be a part of this.”
Al Shaibah hopes to have more sessions for input in January, with more notice for students and have a longer period to provide feedback.