When Arezoo Najibzadeh was a high school student and a newbie political volunteer on the campaign trail, she says she was flashed by a constituent whose door she’d knocked on while out canvassing. As she continued to work in politics, she says she was subject to sexist and sexualized comments. Then came more overt forms of harassment, she says, and eventually, assault.
After about three years, with little to no help from the political institutions she was working with, Najibzadeh made the tough call to leave that world behind. And a new poll by the Young Women’s Leadership Network of 60 people across Ontario who’ve been impacted by sexual violence and harassment while working in politics shows she’s not the only one who’s made that choice: 80 percent of respondents said the experience led them to abandon politics or significantly scale back their involvement. “A lot of times people have to choose [between] staying in their careers and following their passions, and their mental and physical health,” says Najibzadeh, now 23 and a co-founder of the Leadership Network, which aims to keep young women civically engaged. “It’s a choice no one should be forced to make.”
More and more #MeToo stories about sexual misconduct in Canadian politics have come out in the last few months (including allegations against Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown, former federal Conservative candidate Rick Dykstra, and Erin Weir, who was booted from NDP caucus last week after an independent investigation found that he had harassed women staffers). Najibzadeh and Yasmin Rajabi, a fellow former political volunteer and sexual violence survivor, wanted to tackle this problem head on. Last week, they launched an educational resource for political parties, campaigns and governments to help them prevent sexual violence in their workplaces and respond to it in a fair and supportive way when it happens.
The 40-page paper, titled “It’s Time: Addressing Sexual Violence In Political Institutions,” includes the group’s own research, which draws from the experiences of survivors of sexual assault in politics and clearly defines sexual violence and how it is connected to things like racism, ageism and classism. Most of all, it’s a resource that puts survivors of sexual violence first, and highlights the power dynamics that disproportionately affect young people (many of whom are interns or staffers, eager to advance in politics, and doing a lot of the heavy lifting behind the scenes).
To Najibzadeh’s knowledge, there is no comparable resource for political institutions to use to address this issue — certainly not one created by young survivors of sexual violence.
“I hope this resource really hammers into political institutions that support has to be proactive, you can’t wait for the survivor to ask for it,” Rajabi, also 23, says. “It needs to be automatically offered and follow the experiences of survivors.”
Najibzadeh and Rajabi are starting by sharing the resource with candidates and campaigns in the upcoming Ontario election this June. Then, they plan to expand their work to municipal elections in multiple provinces this fall and, eventually, have it be used ahead of the 2019 federal election.
It’s been received well so far, gaining support from a crowdfunded campaign and political strategy firm Earnscliffe. Kathleen Monk, a principal at Earnscliffe and a federal NDP strategist says the resource is an “important” contribution while people are motivated to tackle this issue. “For many of us who work in politics, the allegations that have come to light as a result the #TimesUP & #MeToo movements have been challenging and soul searching,” she says. “Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and do their part to ensure politics and political campaigns are safe and harassment free.”
One young woman, who spoke to Chatelaine anonymously, says she significantly pulled back from her involvement in politics after being sexually assaulted by a co-worker while out campaigning. She hopes political parties will be serious about supporting this work.
“I think it’s a really effective and actually helpful way for parties and campaigns to address #Metoo,” she says. “But whether or not it gets uptake will depend on if there are individuals [in decision-making roles] who care about making participation in politics safe.”