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Take Back the Night sets its own terms

Walking without fear

It started off a normal Sunday morning. As the sun came up on Aug 30, a young woman in Blackburn Hamlet began her early-morning run — a run she never finished. On the way she was attacked and sexually assaulted. Her experience highlights the day-to-day reality that no woman is safe from sexual violence.

Stories like this have brought hundreds of Ottawa women together since 1978 to raise awareness about violence against women at the Take Back the Night march.

The march, organized by and for self-identified women, is a statement of women’s strength and solidarity and a protest against sexual violence on the streets, in homes and in every town and city around the world.

“We want to take back the night. We want to be safe at night. We want to be to be able to go out without male company,” says Concillia Muonde, the Public Education Coordinator at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa (SASC). “We want to be free in the city — we want to be just as everybody else — so by taking back the night, as a group of women, we are reclaiming the streets.”

When it comes to Take Back the Night, men are wanted as allies — but not as march participants, highlighting the right of minority groups to set their own terms of membership. Instead, men can fundraise, spread the word about the march, cheer from the sidelines and encourage their friends, partners and co-workers to take part in the march in solidarity with other women.

“Having men in a march where women are protesting male violence takes away the effect of what women are marching against,” says Muonde.

While the march is symbolic, the reality is harsh — 51 percent of women in Canada have been sexually assaulted and 86 percent of assaults occur in a woman’s home. Sexual assaults are not isolated incidents; they occur every day, but only an estimated six percent are reported to the police. A disproportionate number of sexual assaults are perpetrated against women — a fact that fuels the by-women, for-women approach to Take Back the Night.
 
“It speaks to women’s safety, women’s equality issues. If men don’t have to worry about safety when they are jogging, then it is an equality question. We are second-class citizens,” says Muonde.

The march is a political statement — violence against women is the result of a power differential. More women fall victim to sexual violence and a high percentage of perpetrators are men.

“We are not saying that all men are violent, but violence is done by men who choose to use [it] as a means of oppression,” says Muonde.

It is uniting against that gender inequity that makes Take Back the Night important to women. It is a march where men are asked to stand to the side and make space for women to walk the streets together in solidarity with each other.

Feedback from clients at SASC indicates that a number of women who participate in the march have been sexually assaulted — some multiple times — feel unsafe in the company of men and want to experience feeling safe and strong with other women.

This is the message behind Take Back the Night: that it should be a safe place for all women to protest together.

“By taking part in this march, [women] are letting their voices be heard; they are expressing their reality to other women,” says Muonde. “By coming out…they feel they are in solidarity with other women, [and] that is a really powerful action.”