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Chicago has a gender-based violence problem.
Less than four years ago, a report exposed how Chicago Public Schools (CPS) failed to support over 500 survivors of sexual violence. Last month, we learned the Chicago Park District is dealing with a similar problem where decision-makers ignored the voices of survivors speaking out against systemic sexual harassment.
In both instances, the City has responded by setting up a complaint system and establishing policies for reporting and compliance, but this type of solution misses the mark. What our city really needs is a deep investment in preventing the violence from happening in the first place. That prevention starts with sexual education.
As survivors of gender-based violence, we are intimately familiar with how a lack of investment in preventing violence from happening can impact one’s life. In learning about consent for the first time through participating in a leadership program by Healing to Action, our understanding of power and healthy relationships completely transformed. We learned from our peers more than we ever learned from our parents or teachers.
In reflecting on our experiences, one of us offered this reflection. “Before, I could not say what was in my heart. That made me feel more intimidated, aggressive and fragile, but when I learned more about my value, then I could speak up more for myself and others more than before.”
It became clear to us that our children needed this type of information urgently. Considering that we never had these conversations when we were younger, our new knowledge liberated us from the taboos and fears of talking about sexual health with our children and broke a toxic cycle of silence. In talking with our children, they became more confident in understanding bodily autonomy, practicing a new normal of care and respect with themselves and with their peers. Seeing this positive impact encouraged us to rally to ensure all CPS youth learn about concepts related to bodily agency, including diverse learners who had never had access to sexual health education before.
But preventing sexual violence is not always seen as a priority. Recently, the Mayor’s Office launched a gender-based violence initiative, but past city-based actions give us cause for concern. For instance, despite having a policy mandating comprehensive sexual education for all CPS students, it’s only recently that CPS allocated funding towards implementing comprehensive sexual health education and added components to provide caregivers more information and access as a result of our advocacy. While this is a promising start, about half of CPS students are still not receiving comprehensive sexual education.
About half of CPS students are still not receiving comprehensive sexual education.
As survivors, we believe that how our young people learn how to negotiate boundaries will impact the generations that follow and ultimately prevent violence by creating opportunities for them to better recognize and speak out against harm. Prevention education, like sexual health education, creates and supports a healthy social environment for youth to feel respected and included. It also supports caregivers like ourselves in becoming a source of support for the young people in our communities, which keeps them engaged and comfortable communicating any challenges they might face. This ultimately creates more trust, which creates safer and healthier communities.
Simply put, not adequately funding prevention education in any plan to end gender-based violence actively dismisses an opportunity to include community members in this city’s fight for justice. Let’s instead reimagine accountability around gender-based violence beyond reactionary solutions to actually prevent this violence before it happens. By prioritizing funding for prevention education as well as continuing making this education more accessible to all caregivers, educators and young people in our communities, we believe this cycle of violence can be broken and our communities can begin to heal.
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