Words by Bre Shanahan
CW: Sexual assault and sexual harassment
The final report of the second National Study Safety Survey was released last Wednesday, with UWA ranking fourth and sixth for prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault, respectively.
Of the UWA students surveyed, 21.4% had been sexually harassed and 6.9% sexually assaulted since starting university. Just 3.4% of those who were sexually harassed made a formal complaint.
In an email to students, Vice-Chancellor Amit Chakma and Guild President Amitabh Jeganathan claimed that since the 2016 Respect.Now.Always survey, “significant progress has been made to introduce initiatives and cultural changes to support the safety, security and wellbeing of all our students, staff and other members of our community.”
From 2016 to 2021, the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment fell from 7.9% to 3.2% and from 28% to 14.8% respectively.
Universities Australia has acknowledged that comparability between the prevalence rate of the surveys will be limited due to a change in survey methodology to do with behavioural questions on sexual assault.
Notably, the survey was conducted in 2021 from September 6th until October 3rd. The prevalence of sexual violence was measured by asking students about their experiences over the prior 12 months. It’s conceivable that online learning may have impacted prevalence rates.
Regardless, the net position of UWA is actually worse off. The survey published in 2017 revealed UWA sat at 11th in the nation for experiences of sexual harassment and 10th for sexual assault. In six years, UWA has risen five and four places in these areas.
Knowledge of where to seek help
Importantly, the data shows that structural barriers against survivors have not meaningfully improved.
After five years, UWA has not improved student understanding of how to make a complaint about sexual assault. More than half of those surveyed had little to no knowledge about this process. In fact, knowledge of where to seek support for harassment actually declined, with almost 56% of students having little or no knowledge.
So, while prevalence and prevention remain at the top of the sexual violence agenda, it seems there is a broader conversation we are missing: How is UWA empowering survivors to be heard? And is UWA’s “zero tolerance” approach truly zero tolerance?
A (campus) cultural issue
UWA’s Safe Communities website highlights a variety of projects UWA has undertaken to address the issue. Amongst the projects are the formation of the UWA Safer Communities Working Group, the launch of Step Up Bystander Intervention Training, and the improvement of information available on how to seek support and report an incident.
When asked for a statement, UWA said “The University is working hard to build a culture of openness, where students feel empowered to report sexual harassment or assault, and confidence that the University will support them. We acknowledge UWA’s results and the work ahead to build a safe, respectful and open culture at our University. We will use the information that students have given us to inform our next steps.”
UWA’s list of achievements also includes an increase in the number of Guild student club executives that receive training from the Sexual Assault Resource Centre.
However, the 2021 Survey found that incidents of sexual assault at UWA clubs’ events and spaces represented almost 20% of all incidents at the university, placing second behind those occurring in the general campus area.
The Guild has previously implemented a number of projects designed to improve safety in the clubs’ space. This includes the presence of ‘WellBean’ volunteers at events and the Ask for Angela initiative.
The 2022 Women’s Officer, Chloe Byrant outlined a series of plans in response to the survey results, including the introduction of Sexual Harassment Prevention marshals among club executives, and more visible commitments to zero-tolerance in the event advertising and mandatory Step Up Against Gender-Based Violence training for Guild student representatives.
What’s the way forward?
Since the advent of the #MeToo movement, we have certainly seen a greater willingness to discuss issues of sexual assault and harassment within our communities. But while we may have come to recognise that there is an issue, it appears not enough is being done to ensure survivors are empowered and comfortable to report their experiences and seek support in the University setting.
The qualitative report of the National Safety Survey highlighted that students feel the burden of prevention currently falls on female students and survivors more broadly. While Universities have consistently asserted that they take a “zero-tolerance approach” to sexual violence at their institution, many students felt “that their university’s actions and rhetoric were not reflective of such policies.”
Indeed, many students were understandably disappointed with the joint statement of the Guild President and the Vice-Chancellor which downplayed the significance of UWA’s results while asserting that “significant progress has been made.”
That stood in stark contrast to the statement by Universities Australia Chair, John Dewar, who apologised to survivors of sexual assault and harassment, calling the results of the Survey “distressing, disappointing and confronting.”
When asked whether he regretted co-signing the statement, Guild President, Amitabh Jeganathan said: “The nature of the results and the issues it considered required the immediate and strong response of the Guild President. Co-signing the email was how I chose to go about this, and, in hindsight, I would choose a different approach if faced with this decision again. I want to express that I stand with all survivors, and that I regret if the email was insensitive to students with lived experience.”
Responses to sexual violence must be survivor-centric and trauma-informed. A true commitment to change is not found in self-congratulatory claims of significant progress.
It begins with an apology, accompanied by action. It begins by saying: “We have not been doing enough and we have a long way to go.” It begins with listening to students and being faithful to that policy of a zero-tolerance approach.
Yes, everyone has a part to play in making UWA a safe and respectful place. Women are already acutely aware of the protective measures we take. But, as an institution, we will only progress when UWA acknowledges and tackles those problems that are exclusively within its reach.
We acknowledge that the survey ownership and methodology changed between the surveys published in 2017 and 2022.
If you or anyone you know is seeking support here are some places to contact:
– 1800RESPECT (Ph: 1800 737 732) – National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service
– UWA Student Guild Student Assist (Ph: 6488 2295)
– UWA Counselling and Psychological Services (Ph: 6488 2423)