I became a leader to fight for violence survivors. I quickly realized it would not be easy

I became a leader to fight for violence survivors. I quickly realized it would not be easy

This column is an opinion by Muntaha Aamir, a University of Calgary undergraduate student who is a student representative to the school’s board of governors. For more information aboutCBC’s Opinion section, please see theFAQ.

When I was elected and appointed to a seat on the University of Calgary’s Board of Governors last October, I realized how privileged I was to assume this decision-making role, let alone at 19 years old.

I also was determined to do something important with it — to address a problem that is nearly universal for young women like me.

Sexual harassment and gender-based violence are so widespread that you wish our institutions would approach them as the massive problems they are.

After all, a United Nations agency for women’s empowerment found that 97 per cent of U.K. women aged 18 to 24 reported being harassed. Another UN study found that nearly one in three women have experienced sexual assault or other physical forms of partner or non-partner violence.

Too many women I know have been abused, harassed and discriminated against, and have only found disappointment when seeking justice for their mistreatment.

And I come from a community that’s particularly vulnerable. Practicing Muslims like me wear the hijab. My religion obligates young women to cover themselves to protect their innocence and beauty — but in reality they can become even more susceptible to gender-based violence.

My chance to change things

So I took my seat on my school’s board of governors with the intention of advocating for all of our students who are violence survivors. But I quickly realized this would not be so easy.

I’m one of three student representatives on a board that sets direction for a school of 35,000 students. I feel an immense pressure to represent my peers and advocate for them in a personal way — one that I feel is not shared by my fellow board members.

There should be a strong connection between women in power and the people they represent. Ideally, there’s mutual trust, and constant two-way communication between governors and those they govern on behalf of.

But I fear that’s not the reality.

As one of three student representatives on the board of governors of a 35,000-student school, Muntaha Aamir writes she feels immense pressure to represent and advocate for her peers. (David Bell/CBC)

I don’t want students who look to their leaders for support to feel that we are distant, intimidating figures at the top. But too often, those in power can feel they have all the answers, and consultation is just an obligatory process or a box to check.

Talk to students, and they’ll express surprise that my school currently has a gender- and sexual-based violence policy. I’m left wondering what the point of having that policy is, if people who need it don’t know what resources are available to them, where they are and how they are useful.

The university has a multitude of different support centres that offer referrals to other more comprehensive resources, but they are often too scattered, uncoordinated, or can be intimidating to approach. The right solution for one survivor might not cater to everyone’s individual experience or needs.

Being a woman means fighting for the bare minimum. It means begging for the ability to thrive in society. Every woman who gets into a role of power comes in having faced or witnessed these obstacles. They must know that being in a place of power gives them a responsibility to fight on behalf of the women who supported them.

Canada’s finance minister, Alberta’s premier, and Calgary’s mayor (a woman of colour) surely came into office knowing this. They likely feel this pressure from fellow women they represent, too. Hopefully, they never lose sight of this.

But they will also feel the constraints on affecting change in large, complex institutions. And they’ll recognize how important it is to ensure they’re listening to those they serve, gathering feedback from our representatives, and setting goals that they can attain.

Muntaha Aamir doesn’t want students to feel their leaders are distant, intimidating figures at the top. (CBC)

On campus, my goal now is to coordinate the various resources we have for gender-based and sexual violence survivors, and help create a centralized foundation for every survivor on campus. This will be a big undertaking, with multiple efforts to consult with students and back-and-forths with school administration.

Will that solve everything? No. But it’s an improvement over the status quo.


All of us, in leadership roles or not, are capable of pushing our institutions to be accountable to those they serve.

Whether you are a woman in leadership, a survivor, or just a bypasser, empowerment looks different for everyone.

The issue of sexual and gender-based violence is not an easy task to fix all at once. Moving forward in our society, it is crucial to build strong relationships and forge unity between women in power and those they represent.

My goal is to place myself at the forefront of change, and not be someone who checks boxes and accepts an intolerable status quo.

CBC Calgary welcomes your ideas for short opinion articles. Do you have a strong opinion that could add insight, illuminate an issue of concern to Calgary and Alberta readers? We want to hear from you. Send us your pitch atCalgaryOpinions@cbc.ca

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