Society considers me a woman at the age of seventeen, I want my voting rights to reflect that

Working with the Vote 16 BC campaign to lower the voting age in B.C., I hear from a lot of people with a diversity of opinions – on both sides of the debate.

And debaters from both sides of the issue all too often find themselves at war on the battleground of the Facebook comments section – where victories are won with wit and word choice, and scathing remarks about why sixteen and seventeen year-olds don’t deserve the right to vote — with no representation from the stakeholders themselves.

I often find myself dreading the thought of looking through the Facebook comments section whenever my blogs about lowering the voting age — or for that matter, anything else I create — are shared to social media.

It’s not the people who think I am indoctrinated by my supposedly radical leftist teachers who fill me with worry or fear. Nor those who think I am — along with the rest of my generation — a brain-dead, tide-pod munching zombie with a severe social media addiction. Nor is it those who believe we should raise the voting age to 30, finally earning the right to vote after living a full third of our lives. Nope. These are not the attitudes that worry me. They are unflattering to say the least, but they do not fill me with fear.

It is comments like “What’s next? Lowering the age of consent?” that do. Comments made by grown men about my identity as a young woman. Comments that sexually objectify me because of my work in activism. Comments like this do not make me feel safe.

I see a clear connection between lowering the voting age and women’s rights, with particular regard to protecting the rights of young women, their health, their wellbeing and their bodies.

I am a young female activist and the world is a scary place. I think of what happened to Greta Thunberg at the hands of the Canadian oilfield company, X-Site Energy Services, when they appropriated the work of German Canalla, an Argentinian tattoo artist, and altered it to depict Greta being sexually assaulted.

Vinyl stickers portraying Greta, who was only newly seventeen — the same age I am right now — in a non-consensual and potentially violent sexual way, were said to have been handed out at X-Site Energy Services job sites in Alberta with the knowledge of one of the site managers. Supposedly, these stickers were encouraged to be worn on hard hats. When X-Site Energy Services general manager Doug Sparrow was asked about the stickers, and how they implicitly condone child rape, he said “She is not a child, she is seventeen.”

I am seventeen, too. And I deserve the right to shape policy that will protect me and my body.

In B.C., women — well, originally only white women — were given the right to vote on April 5, 1917. B.C. was the fourth province in Canada to enfranchise women, but it is critical we acknowledge that suffrage did not extend to all women at the time. Indigenous women, Black women and Canadian women of Japanese, Chinese and South Asian descent, were not afforded the right to vote until the late 1940s.

There is still a lot of work to be done on women’s rights in British Columbia, though we also celebrate many successes. Our province is seeing a steady increase in the amount of female MLAs in the Legislature. In 2009, women represented 29 per cent of MLAs; in 2013, 35 per cent; in 2017, 39 per cent; and now in 2020, 43 per cent of MLAs in the legislature are women, the highest yet.

Seeing more and more women in the legislature is both inspiring and reassuring to me as a young non-binary woman. Representation is half the battle. It certainly doesn’t indicate equality in policy, but it is an important first step. And I know more action is needed to fully address the impacts of systemic racism, as well as ageism in our province.

Sixteen is the legal age of consent in Canada and it is clear — through experiences like Greta Thunberg’s, my own and that of many others — that once girls turn sixteen, we are no longer considered children, we are considered young women. And the dominant patriarchal culture of our society in turn, deems it acceptable to sexualize us. This is despite the fact we are still minors and that while adults displaying inappropriate sexual behaviours either online or in public is not illegal, sexual involvement with minors by those above the age of majority is considered statutory rape by Canadian law.

However, when we look at Canadian sexual assault statistics, they tell us that sexual assault is largely a gendered crime with most — but not all — reported incidents being against women. These statistics also tell us young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have experience the highest rates of sexual assault.

To paraphrase, it is young women who experience some of the greatest numbers of sexual assault.

At seventeen, I feel like I am considered either a child or a woman based on the convenience of the society I live in. My ranking within it is chosen to give powerful privileged people the greatest amount of control over me, and the lowest amount of accountability. I’m a woman when it is useful, and a child when it is not.

I’m not okay with it. As a young woman in our society, I want the right to vote. And I want to use it to further women’s rights issues, to help shape policy that will protect the rights of young women in our province, to help elect representatives who will advocate for girls in the face of sexualized harassment and sexualized violence, and to hold the Doug Sparrows of our society accountable.

Sign the petition to lower the voting age to 16 in B.C.