A feminist centre such as the Concordia Women's Centre is founded on the unshakable belief that in order to apprehend the realities lived by women within the university one must start from women's own experiences, and the same applies to situations of violence. Our experience shows, however, that, for many women, the ability to trust their perceptions and intuitions is not a given, that a support system must be in place that helps validate these experiences and incites women to examine them within a larger context.
Women students do not start their academic studies as blank, gender-neutral notebooks. They have already assimilated very specific sets of values and behaviors, and often still adhere to stringent codes of femininity. A large number of women are still extremely reluctant to take what should be their rightful place in the classroom. The presence of male students has a powerful inhibiting effect; many students who drop by the women's centre express their dissatisfaction with co-ed women's studies courses because they do not feel free to speak their minds. Self-censoring is often an engrained response in women students, and there are too few public spaces in which women can train themselves to unlearn this conditioning. We see the Women's Centre as playing an important role in this regard, by offering the kind of space where women can resist forces "that say women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us" (2). To resist, in other words, the role of the victim.
At the Concordia Women's Centre, the situation of violence lived and shared by all women in this society becomes an important focus of education and "conscientisation" (awareness-raising). As a physical space where only women are allowed, it provides a safe place for students who wish to study, eat their lunch, hold a discussion or simply sleep, away from the sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle constraints of co-ed existence. The Women's Centre is the only such place for women on campus.
Safety and confidentiality become two important concerns for a woman who is in crisis and needs assistance, and are elements that we are in a position to offer with the least interference. Immediate attention and care, the ability to listen actively and not minimize what a woman is going through, characterize our style of support. This immediacy, and the more informal peer-based support system we offer distinguishes us from other services offered to women on campus, which are more entrenched in the university structure and are potentially more intimidating. It also provides an alternative to the sometimes well-intentioned, but often ill-trained security guards.
A large part of our work is referral, and we have developed over time an extensive list of resources and services available to women in situations of crisis or who are looking for guidance. We respond to calls for information concerning the whole range of sexual and physical harassment and assault. An important component of this work is the training it provides to the volunteers who staff the Centre, who not only get to familiarize themselves with the resources available in the region and elsewhere, but also gain hands-on experience and develop skills in dealing with emergencies. New volunteers at the centre are coupled with a more experienced worker, a system that allows us to offer and maintain an effective referral service. There is no doubt in our minds that this kind of experience heightens women students' awareness of the realities lived by women, and offers a valuable complement to the often very academic content of their women's studies courses.