[content warning: sexual harassment and sexual assault ]

UWA, Crawley Campus. A large banner on Oak Lawn displays the slogan: ‘Break the silence, end sexual violence’. The group of people seated are not a random arrangement of students enjoying their lunch hour. They are instead taking part in a national protest to pressure universities to respond to the findings of the Human Rights Commission’s Change the Course Report, which found 26% of university students were sexually harassed on their campus in 2016.

For many, the indignation hits close to home — UWA’s reported rates of sexual assault and harassment were higher than the overall averages, at 2.2% and 28% respectively.

The survey which formed the basis of the report’s findings was administered to over 30,000 students across 39 Australian universities. The report revealed that women at university were twice as likely to be harassed, and three times as likely to be sexually assaulted, as men. A further 36% of those surveyed witnessed sexual harassment at UWA in 2016, a figure substantially higher than the 25% mean across the other universities surveyed. In 70% of cases, the perpetrator of most recent sexual harassment was a fellow student from UWA. In 78% of cases, the perpetrator was male.

The release of the results comes after UWA refused to respond to a Freedom of Information investigation for similar information last year. Addressing the report in a Facebook post, the UWA Women’s Department stressed the ‘need to reframe sexual violence on campus as…a systemic problem that is occurring on every campus, [that] needs to be addressed by every university’. At the Oak Lawn protest, UWA Guild Women’s Officer Hannah Matthews spoke to the crowd through a loud speaker: ‘We have come together today to say that this is not good enough…and to recognise the bravery of the survivors’, she said.

The report revealed that 67% of UWA victims of sexual harassment, and 63% of victims of sexual assault, had no or ‘very little’ knowledge about where to go to make a complaint. Similarly, 53% of UWA victims of sexual harassment, and 63.1% of victims of sexual assault had no or ‘very little’ knowledge about where to seek support at UWA.

Pelican Magazine asked Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater to elaborate on the email sent to students by the UWA Administration and the UWA Guild in response to the report. The Vice-Chancellor said she had confidence in the way the university handles reports, but stressed that measures were being put in place to improve safety on campus, support for victims and reporting mechanisms: ‘New initiatives are being put into place already – we are implementing them as each one is finalised’. The Vice-Chancellor cited the Safety on Campus working group, established nine months ago, as leading the way in ‘reviewing all policies, procedures and support services [that underpin] the University policy on sexual harassment’.

‘An example of this is the Guild’s “Ask for Angela” initiative for patrons of the tavern at UWA. If anyone is feeling unsafe, pressured or harassed, they can see a staff member and ask for “Angela”, a code word for seeking assistance. Other initiatives include security escorts (a 24/7 service for anyone to request a security guard to accompany them on campus), free counselling services and a round-the-clock assistance phone hotline’. This assistance phone hotline appears to be the one supported by Universities Australia (in part funded by UWA). It was established to run from 31 July to 30 November. The group managing the hotline is Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia.

The Change the Course report stressed that all universities need to take further ‘decisive action’ to prevent sexual assault and harassment. It recommended that Vice Chancellors take direct responsibility for implementing evidenced-based, transparent measures for preventing sexual violence, and that progress reports be produced by universities within 18 months. Action plans, to be developed in consultation with students, should be produced to address the main drivers of sexual assault and harassment. The report also recommended that universities conduct an immediate audit of counselling services to assess waiting times, the number of urgent requests for help and the quality of care and services offered to victims of sexual assault and harassment.

 

Words by Mara Papavassiliou and Pema Monaghan.

 

The Change the Course report can be read here.

The UWA statistics can be viewed here.

The National University Support Line can be reached on 1800 572 224.