After 26 years without a Women’s Centre, students at McMaster will soon be able to access a service designed to provide support and safe space for women-identified people on campus. This project, called the Women and Gender Equity Network, will be launching in mid-October.
“My vision for the network is to try to dismantle patriarchal culture both from the outside and the inside,” said WGEN Coordinator Shanthiya Baheerathan. “[The program will] support women to be able to go out and be comfortable in a male dominated field, or be comfortable despite the fact that there are these prevalent gender norms that are constantly making them think that they can’t do what they are able to do.”
In March 2014, the Student Representative Assembly and the MSU approved the WGEN as a pilot project for the 2014-2015 school year. The project, with a proposed budget of over $10,000, will provide advocacy to educate students on topics such as rape culture, and host workshops on topics such as women in engineering and technology.
The WGEN also looks to provide a safer space for trans* and women-identified persons, and support for survivors of sexual assault.
“Trans* people experience a lot of discrimination on campus. A lot of spaces are not trans* accessible,” said Baheerathan. “We want to make sure we are also providing support to people who experience trans* antagonism or even small micro-aggressions towards their person and their identity.”
Although the WGEN was originally proposed as a women’s centre, the pilot project will begin as a network with no permanent physical space on campus. Having a safer space for women on campus is essential to the WGEN project, and could come in the form of a permanent location or through temporary space called swing space.
“We are having some trouble finding private and accessible space on campus,” said Baheerathan. “We have to make sure people feel comfortable coming into the space […] it is sort of controversial, people are like ‘why do you need a women’s space on campus?’ It has been a difficult process to get here.”
The MSU is conducting a space allocation audit this November, which could lead to a more permanent space for the network.
“ [The space allocation audit is] a committee that looks at the spaces we offer our services through a critical lens to see what would be best or how it would be best served,” said Jacob Brodka, MSU Vice President, Administration. “The Women and Gender Equity Network, like our other services, will definitely be something we will be considering.”
For now, the MSU is working with WGEN to find temporary spaces to hold workshops and other events.
“This year the service is going to be offering programming, educational campaigns, offering spaces on campus where people can come connect,” said Brodka. “I’m looking forward to seeing what the service does.”
If the pilot project is successful, it could lead to the development of a women’s centre on campus in the future.
“The space for the WGEN would arguably look like much different than what you’d want for a full blown women’s centre with full-time counselors. For the time being, what we are working on is an organizational approach”, said Brodka. “We’d hope that our organization acting and doing these things, offering these programs and running educational campaigns of that nature would spur conversations about the need for a larger centre and full time counselors. You can see the two definitely go hand in hand, but how that would play out, we will just have to wait and see.”