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Listen To Sexual Assault Survivors Of Colour

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More and more, we're hearing stories of sexual violence being told publicly and receiving sustained media attention. We see mainstream media using the phrase "rape culture" -- used for decades by anti-sexual violence advocates -- to talk about the system of beliefs and attitudes that props up abusers while tearing down survivors of violence.

This is, arguably, a turning point in the national conversation about sexual violence and gender-based violence in Canada. But whose stories are being included in the conversation? Which survivors' voices are heard?

We sat down with advocates Andrea Villanueva and Chenthoori Malankov to talk about how the conversation on sexual violence can centre communities of colour.

Andrea Villanueva is a Mexican-based artist with a permanent disability. She studies Cinema and Human Rights at York University. When she was 15 years old she co-founded an organization called Project Slut.

Chenthoori Malankov is a student at York University who uses the power of community to connect, reflect and educate. She was raised in Toronto but is a daughter of Tamil's diaspora. Utilizing alternative platforms such as arts, education models she designs and facilitates workshops in schools throughout Toronto on issues revolving around gender-based violence and wanting to create more spaces for marginalized voices.

Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence and rape enacted against women of colour?

Chenthoori: "There's no representation of women of colour in media because media isn't a safe place for survivors or women of colour. When women of colour are represented in the media it [is implied] that family violence or sexual assault is something that happens in our culture. Our cultures are [portrayed as] barbaric [and] our stories are sensationalized."

Andrea: "We get scapegoated, as if race [is] the reason why we get raped or why sexual violence happens to us. They don't know how to investigate issues that happen in communities. They say 'Oh [in] this community men were very masculine, very machista, and lots of women get assaulted.' They scapegoat my community which makes it harder for women of colour to come forward."

Interviewer: How have you seen women of colour creating consent culture?

Chenthoori: "I've seen women of colour creating consent culture all the time. [However] it is hard to have these conversations in my community, specifically around [what] consent looks like. The root cause of sexual assault and gender-based violence is silenced and it's almost OK that it's happening to us. We [are told we] should be quiet about [it]. It's reliving trauma for the rest of our lives.

"I would like to see women of colour hold men accountable. In my community, patriarchy is at the forefront of almost all movements. Constructively criticizing actions happening in our communities [is important]. Family is complicated when we talk about family violence; [that is also the case] with consent culture."

Interviewer: Often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that don't fit this narrative?

Chenthoori: "It's a matter of humanizing women of colour. There's stigma attached to women of colour in the media... It always comes back to culture or that we're immigrants. It's never about validating my experience. It's letting white women take up space and taking [it] away from women of colour. Why [are] women of colour sensationalized? Why is my culture the narrative of what happened to me? Violence against women is in every culture. It's about making me human and writing it as I say."

Andrea: "'Racially charged' stories should be [delivered] with truth and compassion, [not used to] further marginalize and re-victimize. Ask people within that person's community how [the story] impacts them... Ask how they feel about [how] they're being represented... [Ask] experts in communities. Look outside your professional circle... [You can] deliver a story without further victimizing anybody if you ask, 'how is this going to affect others?'"

Interviewer: Statistics show most survivors do not report. Why is it important to have diverse representations of survivorship in media reporting?

Chenthoori: "Representation is important, especially diverse representation of survivorship. [It would] be powerful if I saw Tamil women speaking out of [their] experience. When someone [speaks out] it restores hope for survivors who don't feel safe or comfortable [doing so]. Someone coming and reporting increases visibility."

Andrea: "It's difficult for different communities to navigate the legal system, the police, etc., without being re-victimized. It's difficult to get a conviction. So it's important to represent [this reality] because the ideal survivor is [not] the norm. We validate only survivors that [try to] to 'get a verdict and to put that man away.' We need to show women that don't go through a reporting or legal processes because that reinforces to other women [that] violence did happen to you."

Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening, and what do we still need to address?

Chenthoori: "Because of students and [community] activists the provincial government is creating an action plan to stop sexual violence. This is a tipping point for youth engagement. It's always 'experts' that talk about these things; not enough representation of lived experiences. A lot of people should be involved.

"In the Cosby and Ghomeshi cases, the women were never really validated. The amount of women that came forward, yet still [the] innocent until proven guilty [narrative]. There was never a follow-up about how the survivors are doing, what the community is doing, what supports and resources are accessible to survivors."

Andrea: "In my community there are women's circles and we share. It doesn't have to be experts. Our communities are powerful. I would like to see [stories about how] we [can] heal ourselves to some extent."

This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.

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