The Survivorship Series, a photojournalistic project scheduled for today, may be the last event for the Students Against Domestic Abuse Association advocacy group at the U of C due to the lack of student participation because of the pandemic.

Viviana Heather, a third-year law student and the association’s president, became involved with the group because of a relative who dealt with domestic abuse in the past. 

“It was one of my good friends, Tina, who started the club. And she knew of my academic and community involvement. But she didn’t know exactly my backstory with regards to my relative. So when she reached out to me, I actually was very interested in getting involved because it just looks so close to home,” Heather said. 

The group has hosted multiple events over the years including ‘Road 2 Resilience’ conferences and ‘Walk A Mile In Her Shoes’ in collaboration with YW Calgary to support and encourage survivors of domestic abuse to speak up. 

Identifying abuse 

Gaye Warthe is the associate dean of teaching and learning in the faculty of health, community and education at Mount Royal University. She holds a PhD in social work specializing in domestic violence and has found that people often don’t associate students with domestic abuse.

According to the Women Against Abuse website, forms of abuse go beyond the easy-to-spot physical and sexual violence. Other unseen forms of abuse include financial, emotional, spiritual and technological.

“It could be forcing somebody to watch pornography, forcing somebody to do acts that they’re not comfortable with, nor have they provided consent for, or even engage in any kind of activity where there’s no consent, or consent is unable to be provided, like in the case of alcohol or other substances,” Warthe said. 

Red flags are not easily identified when abuse goes beyond physical violence.

“If you’re looking at somebody else’s relationship, you think they seem to be getting along okay,” Warthe said. “But when there’s a pattern of abuse, what we frequently see is that they have learned to hide a lot of the things that we might look for. It would be easy if we just had to look and see a bruise on somebody.”

Advocacy on campus

Carla Bertsch, sexual and gender-based violence support and response coordinator at the University of Calgary, deals with students who have experienced or are in abusive relationships. She wants to ensure students have the support and resources to thrive during their time in post-secondary. 

“It’s a privilege almost to be able to come to school and only have to worry about school,” Bertsch said.

Unhealthy relationships can easily develop when peer pressure becomes routine, especially where someone holds power and control over another. It’s crucial to recognize early forms of abuse and intervene when they arise. 

“It could be something like interrupting a sexist joke and people might not recognize it. That’s an important part of the work but when we slowly degrade individuals, it becomes easier and easier to become abusive,” Bertsch said. 

Warthe said that post-secondary students, particularly undergraduate students, are one of the highest-risk groups to experience violence in relationships.  

“This is not an issue that has a gender that’s at risk: all students, any identity, sexual identity or orientation are all at risk,” he said. 

Warthe is the current president of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters and she hopes students will seek out support from the right resources when they come across domestic violence. 

“If you ask a university student, ‘Have you ever called the domestic violence shelter?’ The response is frequently, ‘No that wouldn’t be a service that would serve my needs,’ when in fact, it very much is a service that is appropriate for students.”

Being a part of the solution

Students wearing heels in support of ‘Walk a Mile in her Shoes’ event hosted by Students Against Domestic Abuse Association. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY: BANDI SZAKONY

COVID-19 has been tough on student-led clubs due to online learning and lack of on-campus engagement. With most of the executive members of of the group graduating by the end of the year, finding new members to keep the club going is a struggle. 

Student groups around these issues on campus are really vital, really important. They are the largest population of people that participate in our community. And it’s important to have their voices heard,” Bertsch said.

The executive team hope the advocacy continues and students support one another and share in the stories of the ‘Survivorship Series’ event.

“This event is to raise awareness of the lasting effects of domestic abuse and to empower survivors to tell their stories and heal while educating the university community,” Heather said.

If you or anyone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, seek help at 403-234-SAFE (7233). 

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