All eyes were fixed on Marie Sleth Friday evening as she recounted the sexual violence she’d experienced while living in a foster home as a child.
“The man of the house, in the foster home, he would be drunk and take advantage of me sexually. He said that if I told his wife, she would send me back to the institution,” said Sleth.
“I didn’t want to go back to the [Huronia] institution, so I just put up with it.”
Sleth shared her story with the participants of this year’s Take Back the Night (TBTN). It’s a global initiative aimed at creating “safe communities and respectful relationships through awareness events and initiatives” and ending all forms of sexual violence.
Safe space for survivors
Each year, TBTN focuses on a specific group of people who experience sexual violence – this year’s event focused on survivors living with disabilities and deafness.
When Sleth finished speaking, the crowd of over 100 applauded her, and fellow speaker, Patricia Seth, for their bravery.
The annual event provides a safe space to support survivors as they share their experiences with sexual violence — which is unusual in such a public forum. The rally on campus was followed by a march through the surrounding area.
“Sometimes sexual violence is seen as a private issue, but it is actually a public issue that we all have a responsibility to address,” said Farrah Khan, co-ordinator for Ryerson’s Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education (OSVSE). “And this reminds us, as a campus, we’re here for each other,” she added.
According to Statistics Canada, young and vulnerable women are the most likely to be sexually abused. Only six out of 100 sexual assaults are reported to the police.
‘A lot bigger’ than Ryerson
The first TBTN was held in Toronto 35 years ago in response to the murder of a law student.
For the past few years, the event has been hosted at Ryerson. This year, more than 30 groups collaborated on the event, including the Centre for Women and Trans People, the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson, RyeACCESS and the OSVSE.
“This is a huge event,” said Cassandra Myers, a fourth-year child and youth care student and co-ordinator of the Ryerson Students’ Union’s Sexual Assault Survivor Support Line.
Myers added that she believes the event is “a lot bigger” than Ryerson.
“We’re very much a placeholder and centralized location for the event, which is great because holding space is so important,” she said.
However, Myers said she believes that the decision to host the event at Ryerson is its own act of resistance and resilience, considering the number of sexual assaults that take place on university campuses.
Faelix Kayn, a board member at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, said they are also in favour of holding TBTN on university campuses.
“I think it’s really amazing, because a lot of the sexual assaults that happen are on university and college campuses. So it’s sending a message to current and future rapists that it’s not OK, and that there is a community that is looking out for survivors,” said Kayn.