Toronto’s Strong Neighbourhood Strategy must include gender-based violence

By Wendy Komiotis, Executive Director, METRAC

The Toronto Strong Neighbourhood Strategy 2020 (TSNS 2020) report was recently released and is being discussed today at a public City of Toronto Community Development and Recreation Committee meeting. The strategy’s goal of equitable outcomes for all neighbourhoods is commendable, and its Urban HEART @Toronto indicators – Economic Opportunities, Social Development, Healthy Lives, Participation in Decision-Making and Physical Surroundings – are essential for levelling quality of life and opportunities for all Torontonians.

But visibly missing from these indicators are measures of community safety, especially for women, girls, youth and others at high risk of sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. In its 2012 Toronto Vital Signs Report, Toronto Community Foundation found that sexual assault in Toronto increased by nearly 4% in 2011, even as other rates of violence went down. When this fact is added to the consideration that only an estimated 10% of sexual assaults are reported to police, gender-based violence reveals itself as a looming neighbourhood problem.

Higher rates of sexual violence and fear are a manifestation of social inequity women and girls face in society. Domestic violence towards women and girls is a pervasive social problem supported by evidence from government statistics, frequent media coverage, police reports and academic research.

For 30 years, we’ve identified fear and experience of gender-based violence as a quality of life issue affecting more than half of the city’s population and the vast majority of families and communities. UN Women found sexual violence in public spaces is a barrier for women and girls’ equal participation in daily life. It affects their safety in school and employment opportunities; reduces their enjoyment of culture and recreation; and negatively impacts their health and well-being. UN Women notes that this violence “remains a largely neglected issue, with few laws or policies in place to prevent and address it”.

Our city must ensure that efforts to build social equity and strong neighbourhoods include building safer neighbourhoods for women, girls and others at high risk of gender-based violence. Urban HEART indicators must include their fear and experience of this violence, and community groups that address it must be consulted and partnered with. Programs, policies and resources that arise from the TSNS 2020 have to include mechanisms to foster safer neighbourhoods for everyone, including women and girls.

We can’t expect pervasive gender-based violence to decrease if we don’t act on all levels to eliminate it – government and institutional policy and planning, corporate partnerships, community groups, organizational and individual levels alike.

TSNS 2020 and similar initiatives at the City of Toronto are promising, credible and present great opportunities to bolster quality of life. But safety for women, girls and others at high risk of gender-based violence must be incorporated into this progressive strategy to foster a livable, equitable city for everyone.