National Day of Action – UWA Guild Women’s Department Response

Content warning: this article contains discussions of sexual assault and harassment.

It’s been a year to the day that the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘Change The Course’ report into university sexual harassment and assault was released. The nationwide survey came after years of campaigning in highlighting not only the prevalence of sexual violence on campuses, but the failures of universities in responding to protect survivors and taking disciplinary action against perpetrators (you can find the Change the Course report here). One year on, the NUS Women’s Department has called a Women’s National Day of Action to commemorate the release of the survey results and associated impact, reflect on the progress made and continue the fight for university students affected by sexual violence on campus.

The lead up to the release of the AHRC report saw the Guild and the University jointly establish the Safety on Campus Working Group in 2017. The Working Group was formed to identify and respond to key issue areas through the formulation of an Action Plan, including communications, policies and processes, education and training, services and support, and prevention and cultural change. Through the monthly (and now quarterly) meetings, Guild representatives meet with various university stakeholders from the Health Promotion Unit, Student Experience, Campus Management among others. Through this group (which I sit on with Guild President Megan Lee, Welfare Officer Pheobe Ho and Residential Students’ Department President Maddie Hedderwick), we have been successful in facilitating various projects and changes on campus in line with the 10 recommendations from the report. Some of these include:

  • Establishing a UWA webpage outlining how to report sexual harassment and assault on campus (you can find the website here: http://www.student.uwa.edu.au/experience/health/sexual-harassment-and-assault)
  • Implementing an independent audit of the residential colleges, which will take place this semester
  • Availability of various training programs covering sexual violence and related issues provided by the university, such as the SHARE (Sexuality, Sexual Health & Relationships) Program by the Health Promotion Unit, as well as the Guild’s Student Leadership Training.

Though some progress has been made, the university is not responding with the urgency the issue necessitates. As part of the National Day of Action, the Women’s Department has developed 6 UWA-specific demands to further improve safety on campus.

1. A commitment by the university to complete the application for more lighting in 2018.

Ah, lighting on campus. A phrase often used in frustration by students, mostly around Guild election time when people think no one has fixed it. The truth is, it’s incredibly difficult to secure funding for more lighting and it’s something the Guild has advocated for since the inception of the Working Group (and long before it).

The Women’s Department conducted a survey into Safety, Security and Lighting on Campus, which includes feedback on the areas in which respondents felt lighting was inadequate when walking around campus at night. Despite the results being communicated to the university several times over the last year, we have yet to see an application to fund the installation of more lighting around campus. The Guild is currently working closely with Campus Management to ensure that we see this through.

2. Implementation of the Callisto Project to facilitate reporting of sexual violence on campus.

Recommendation 6 of the AHRC reads: Universities should ensure that information about individual disclosures and reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment is collected and stored confidentially and used for continuous improvement of processes.

The Callisto Project facilitates a secure, trauma-informed platform to increase rates and speed of reporting, and the detection of serial sexual assailants. We believe this is the most effective way forward to ensure that the university can accurately collect data related to sexual violence on campus, particularly as it is an issue where there is an incredible stigma around reporting (87% of students sexually assaulted on campus did not make a formal report to their university).

3. Annual release of all data that pertains to sexual violence on campus.

Though the AHRC survey was a monumental milestone in bringing to light an accurate portrayal of the prevalence of sexual violence at universities, it still only captures a limited time period. To ensure the university remains transparent and accountable in the coming years, students and staff have a right to know every year what the facts and figures around sexual violence on their university campus is, and how the university is continuing to adapt its response to it.

4. Mandatory sexual violence response training for academic and support service staff.

Given the sensitivity and stigma around discussing sexual assault and harassment, it is evident that people who have experienced sexual assault or harassment will disclose it to a peer or co-worker rather than pursuing formal means. It is therefore crucial that university staff know how to respond to receiving a disclosure, to ensure that they are equipped with helping survivors in seeking support and reporting the disclosure to the university.

5. Employment of at least 2 full-time equivalent counsellors with sexual violence training.

1.6% reported being sexually assaulted in a university setting; at UWA, that’s around 312 people in a year. There is definitely provision for more counsellors who specialise in sexual violence to be available on campus.

6. Greater university oversight of residential colleges.

The residential colleges are independent and therefore not subject to the same behavioural standards and policies implemented by universities despite their affiliation. Though the issue is far worse in eastern states universities (for example, USyd’s St John’s College whose governance is enshrined in NSW state legislation), there is still a lot of work to be done in ensuring the colleges and UWA align in their approach towards sexual violence. The independent audit of the residential colleges is a big step in helping us to achieve this, and the Guild will make sure the results of the survey will be used accordingly.

This list is not exhaustive; it doesn’t include some of the other work we are doing with the university, including improving the accessibility and quality of security services on campus, campaigning for cultural change around sexual violence and rape culture, as well as ensuring the university is accountable to the Action Plan. 

Though the last year the world has seen a breakthrough in the stigma of this issue through the pick up of the #MeToo movement, there is still so much work to be done to ensure that we live in a world where people are free from the threat of all forms of sexual violence. So, on today’s National Day of Action, there is only one thing I’ll say: take the issue seriously.

The reason this issue is so ridiculously prevalent is because for too long survivors have not been believed, made to think they were just causing a fuss, or thought they had brought an act of assault or harassment upon themselves. In the meantime, perpetrators of sexual violence are too often able to get away with it because there are so many barriers to reporting the crime and historically, ramifications on perpetrators have been far too light.

This is a problem that has tangible and often traumatic effects on student’s lives and university experiences. Aside from the various mental, emotional and physical effects, I know people who have considered dropping out of their degree after experiencing sexual violence because they lost many of their friends as a result, they lost the motivation to continue studying or it was the only way they could avoid their perpetrator. It is so important that all of us, no matter whether we have been affected by this or not, maintain a conversation around sexual assault and harassment to promote a positive culture of change and combat the stigma around the problem.

In a world where we acknowledge that everyone has the right to access an education, it only makes sense that our educational institutions do their best to protect this right.

Resources/links:

Change The Course Report: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/AHRC_2017_ChangeTheCourse_UniversityReport.pdf

On Safe Ground Report (Australian Human Rights Centre, UNSW): https://humanrights.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/inline-files/AHR0002_On_Safe_Ground_Good_Practice_Guide_online.pdf

Red Zone Report: http://apo.org.au/system/files/134766/apo-nid134766-607496.pdf

We Will Not Be Silent – NUS Women’s Department Campaign: http://nus.asn.au/departments/womens

Sexual Violence at UWA: http://www.student.uwa.edu.au/experience/health/fit/share/relationships/sexual-violence

Sexual Assault Resource Centre: 6458 1828 (emergency), 1800 199 888

Lifeline: 13 11 44

Roshni Kaila | UWA Student Guild Women’s Officer