Program to curb gender-based violence expanding to schools across Nova Scotia

By Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A unique program aimed at curbing gender-based violence by teaching teenagers about gender roles, inclusion and healthy relationships is set to expand to dozens of schools across Nova Scotia.

The Healthy Relationships for Youth program offered through the Antigonish Women’s Centre and Sexual Assault Services Association is one of a growing number of initiatives recognizing that teaching youth — particularly boys — how to be a good partner is a critical, but often overlooked, part of ending intimate partner violence, experts say.

“It’s extremely important that young boys and young males get involved; I feel like sometimes they fall through the cracks,” Anita Stewart, executive director of the women’s centre in Antigonish, N.S., said in an interview Tuesday. “Many young boys, they want to be allies, and they want to be good partners when they grow up, and they want to be good dads and good role models.”

The Healthy Relationships for Youth program has been offered since about 2006 at local schools around Antigonish, a university town of about 5,000 people in eastern mainland Nova Scotia. The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women recently committed to funding the program for a combined $2.5 million over the next five years so it can expand across the province to approximately 80 schools, Stewart said.

The program is offered to Grade 9 students in a series of 12 sessions, led by students in Grade 11 and 12 who have been trained to facilitate. The sessions teach the kids about boundaries, gender roles and diversity, Stewart said. They’ll learn that they should be wary if their partner is asking to read their private messages on their phone, or demanding nude pictures, she offered as an example.

“Those things may seem innocent at the time to the youth, but it’s an act of control,” she said.

The students also learn about ableism, racism, homophobia and transphobia, and that people experience violence in different ways, Stewart added.

Her organization has kept careful tabs on students’ experiences with the program, and she said an overwhelming majority of participants have reported that they feel safer in their school knowing their peers were part of it, and that they feel better and more confident about themselves and their abilities to recognize unhealthy behaviours.

Rates of police-reported intimate-partner violence climbed each year between 2015 and 2021, and the majority of victims were girls and women aged between 12 and 24. Stewart said Healthy Relationships for Youth is aimed at preventing the abuse when students are young, and at helping them grow into adults who don’t abuse, or who can recognize if they might be in trouble.

Kaitlin Geiger-Bardswich, an interim director at Women’s Shelters Canada, said intimate partner violence is under-reported to the police and therefore statistics can be deceiving, but youth are often “forgotten about.”

“Working with children and youth is huge,” she said in an interview. “We need to change our culture, we need to change how misogyny, sexism and violence is happening in society. And I think working with kids is a way to do that.”

Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement with the Canadian Women’s Foundation, said data about the effectiveness of these programs in preventing gender-based violence is spotty, since many have only emerged in the last decade or so.

But there is ample evidence that allowing youth to address complicated ideas about themselves and their relationships in safe environments with their peers contributes greatly to their development, she said. And that will likely help them make better decisions about their relationship behaviour.

Funding for preventive programs such as Healthy Relationships for Youth is often sporadic, as money is more likely to be directed toward avenues to deal with violence after it has happened, such as policing, she added.

Gunraj, whose non-profit organization works to end violence against women, said she’d like to see governments commit to funding more of these programs as a “valid way to address gender-based violence and a valid way to help with youth development.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2024.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press

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