A purple and orange illustration of a woman holding up a sign reading "Take back the night" surrounded by a crowd of protestors

Illustration by Michele Perry

Why Take Back the Night matters more than ever

2018’s theme Housing Justice for All reminds us that, even after 37 years, we have a long way to go

Seven years ago, Carolyn* finally found a space where she felt strong and unafraid. Amongst other survivors of sexual violence, she took to the streets and marched and chanted until her voice was hoarse. She was visible, she was heard—and she knew she wasn’t alone. Every year since, Carolyn has returned to participate in Take Back the Night, a community rally and march that protests the fear women and non-binary people feel when walking after dark.

“Every year, I’m excited about the event because I get to be loud and proud and nobody can say anything,” Carolyn says. “You realize you’re not alone. There are other people who have been through what you’ve been through.”

Naomi Martey, a counsellor and advocate at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape (TRCC/MWAR) who is coordinating the 2018 event (on September 14), says that for her, the walk is a cathartic moment of direct action. “I think it’s very meaningful for people to do something with their bodies that is for their own liberation,” she says.

“What does it mean for someone to be able to walk down the street and make someone else feel unsafe? We challenge people to think about what makes them feel as though they have this entitlement to other people’s bodies.”

According to a 2017 Statistics Canada survey, sexual assault was the only violent crime that didn’t decline in the decade between 2004 and 2014. The same report found that due to the shame, guilt, stigma and normalization connected to these crimes, instances of sexual assault remain staggeringly underreported to police. However, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and a slew of high-profile cases in recent headlines, the topic of sexual violence is having a long-overdue moment in the spotlight.

“One thing we focus on in relation to sexual violence is power,” Martey says. “What does it mean for someone to be able to walk down the street and make someone else feel unsafe? We challenge people to think about what makes them feel as though they have this entitlement to other people’s bodies, and to spread that beyond just encounters that happen on the street.”

For the past 37 years, Toronto’s annual Take Back the Night walk has given survivors a platform through which to empower themselves. Almost four decades ago, a young woman was killed on the Lakeshore at night. Community activists and organizers rallied together to show that women deserved to occupy public spaces without fear.

While at first the walks were fueled by anger, the event has evolved into a celebration and ceremony for survivors. Before the event begins, the community meets for a fair, dinner and rally. Martey explains that, rather than being a direct reaction to a specific instance of violence, the event is planned each year with intention: committees meet, speakers are selected and an overarching theme is chosen.

“This theme is about active victory—people actively intervening in the boxing out of vulnerable peoples, marginalized peoples, and the increase of violence.”

The theme of the 2018 event, co-hosted by Parkdale Community Legal Services, is Housing Justice for All. The walk will also begin in Parkdale, which drew attention earlier this year for its tenant strike in protest of a landlord’s attempt to raise rents above the legal 1.8 per cent cap. With rent prices rising and the ongoing gentrification of low-income areas of the city, finding safe and stable housing has become a challenge for many Torontonians—and it’s an issue that’s intrinsically tied with sexual violence. Statistics Canada reports that people without a place to call home experience a rate of sexual assault three times higher than those who have somewhere safe to sleep at night.

“Safer housing options means safer communities,” Martey says. “This theme is about active victory—people actively intervening in the boxing out of vulnerable peoples, marginalized peoples, and the increase of violence. Because injustice in housing is an increase in violence.”

Even after 37 years, Take Back the Night remains a beacon of hope and healing. Giving survivors like Carolyn a platform upon which to feel strong and united, and encouraging onlookers to face the unwavering prevalence of sexual violence, makes Take Back the Night as important today as it was when it began.

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* Last name withheld for privacy