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There is a whisper network in politics. To protect young women, it has to end

A. H. Reaume is a writer and the former editor-in-chief of Antigone Magazine.

When I was in my 20s, I founded a magazine to encourage more young women to get involved in politics. In this capacity, I often interacted with young women who were passionate about politics and involved in political parties.

But I quickly saw a pattern develop. Young women who had been extremely involved in either campus or party politics would suddenly drop out or pull back. At first, I thought they might be burning out or becoming disenchanted with the political process. But when I started talking to some of them, I was told heartbreaking stories of assault and sexual harassment at the hands of powerful people within the party during internships or normal party organizing.

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Some of these women told me they had shared their experiences with people they trusted within their party or even officially reported them. If they were believed, the first question they were often asked was whether they would go to the media. They told me it was made clear to them that doing anything to take action on their harassment or assault could mean the end of their political careers.

The careers of the men who allegedly harassed or assaulted them were never threatened. From what I understood, these men experienced no consequences outside a verbal reproach.

At the time, I offered to support these women if they wanted to come forward. But they were students in university. They had student loans and dreams of careers in politics that they still weren't ready to give up on, despite taking what they told themselves was a momentary step back from politics. They also knew how ruthless their political friends were at attacking the opposition and felt that if they registered a complaint publicly they would quickly become targeted. They imagined their careers and reputations ruined. They stayed quiet.

I started working on a national survey that would hopefully allow us to measure the extent of the problem across parties and levels of politics, but we weren't able to get funding or partners to help us with this project, so it was never completed. Today, I desperately wish we had been able to conduct that survey. Perhaps if this conversation had been brought up 10 years ago, it would have saved other women from harassment or assault.

In a recent survey by The Canadian Press, MPs were asked if they had ever experienced sexual harassment, assault or misconduct. Fifty-eight per cent said they had. A whopping 76 per cent also said they had either witnessed or been told about sexual misconduct that affected another woman working in the House of Commons. These statistics don't surprise me.

There is a whisper network in politics. There are men that women are told to stay away from. But these whispers don't reach everyone. It also seems that those who have the power to change the culture of political parties are often less concerned with protecting young staffers or volunteers from harassment and more concerned with confidentiality and the political optics of that harassment becoming known.

This is not acceptable. In 2015, a record number of 88 women were elected to Parliament. But that's just 26 per cent of MPs – still short of the 30-per-cent critical mass that experts suggest will actually make a difference. I can't help but wonder how many potential female political candidates have left politics because of the harassment or assault they have experienced.

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Harassment and assault in political parties don't just destroy women's political dreams, they also affect their democratic participation and our democratic representation. The culture of protecting predators in order to shield a political party from embarrassment or bad news cycles has to stop.

While the House of Commons is implementing changes designed to protect staffers, political parties must also make it clear to everyone in their membership – from the lowliest volunteer to the party leader – that sexual harassment and assault will not be tolerated. They should have mandatory training sessions around what constitutes harassment and assault as well. They should evaluate and improve whatever formal reporting processes they have and ensure that women who come forward with accusations will not have their political careers ruined.

This is 2018. We can't continue to treat women this way. It's time to change our political culture. No young woman should have to walk away from her passion for politics because some man didn't know how to behave.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is saluting the courage of the women who speak out about sexual assault, after the resignation of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative leader. Patrick Brown has denied allegations of sexual misconduct. The Canadian Press
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