Creating a safer future on university campuses

(As published in The Australian on August 2, 2017)

White Ribbon welcomes yesterday’s release of the Change the Course report by the Australian Human Rights Commission into university students’ experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault.

This robust national survey is very timely given the reluctance of the tertiary sector to formally acknowledge and respond to the issue that has for decades existed across our university campuses. This study has brought to the forefront some alarming figures — namely, that one in five students experienced sexual harassment in a university setting in 2016. Additionally, women were found to have been three times more likely than men to have experienced sexual assault.

This data confirms what we’ve known for some time. Women are more likely to experience sexual harassment and sexual assault than men, and the drivers of this are the same that lead to domestic violence. As a community we have broken the silence about this insidious issue that permeates our domestic life in Australia.

Focusing on its occurrence in other settings is critical to the wellbeing of our whole community and to continuing to preventing it from happening in the first place and support those affected. To prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault we need to address the culture, attitudes and behaviours of young people so that we do not normalise or tolerate abusive, disrespectful behaviours that perpetuate gender power imbalances and gender inequality.

Universities must be safe places, where students and staff participate in an educative environment that is equitable and supportive. The current status quo, as outlined in the report, is unacceptable.

The issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault in university environments reflect what is happening in our broader community. They impact wider society, encompassing schools, workplaces and homes. While some universities have taken positive steps taken to address sexual harassment and sexual assault, these efforts need to be more focused and build on what is evidenced as working to drive and deliver change. They must take a holistic, committed and universal approach.

Recent independent evaluation of White Ribbon’s workplace accreditation program data highlights the positive impact that prevention initiatives have on behaviours. The data demonstrates the effectiveness of working with workplaces and learning environments to broaden understandings of gender based violence and abuse, create respectful relationships and build people’s confidence to be active bystanders and take action when they witness violence or become aware of it.

Universities are now in a position where they need to address gender inequality, abuse and disrespect. Change can be made through strategic programs, that create positive learning environments supported by policy and procedures which highlight approaches to prevention, support victims of harassment and assault, allow bystanders to report incidents and hold perpetrators accountable.

We stand beside the individuals and organisations who have advocated tirelessly to bring this issue into the spotlight. We acknowledge and commend the 39 Australian universities for taking this critical step to advance understanding of the exact nature and extent of this issue, and encourage all tertiary institutions to use this as a catalyst for change.

Working together we can create a safer future, free of all forms of harassment and assault.

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