According to the recent Talk About It survey by the National Union of Students Women’s department, 72% of students have experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment while enrolled at their current institution. Nearly 14% of survey respondents indicated that they had experienced rape, attempted rape, or assault by penetration.
The Talk About It survey collected data last year from students across Australia about experiences of student safety, including sexual violence, assault and harassment.
Rates of sexual assault and harassment only show so much of the picture, however, as data indicates that incidences often go unreported. The survey shows that only 5.5% of students had reported the incident to their university, and just 4.8% to the police.
Among the reasons that survey respondents indicated as to why they did not report included “I did not think I would be believed”, “I didn’t know who to report to”, and “I didn’t think I would feel comfortable talking to the police about it”.
These reasons speak to a broader problem in university culture, in which often there is no consensus across Australian universities, or even across departments within universities themselves, on how to deal with these issues.
They also demonstrate bigger issues about society’s attitude to sexual assault and harassment, in which survivors often feel like they won’t be believed or supported by the institutions supposed to protect them.
This year the National Union of Students (NUS) has been engaging with universities, and encouraging them to run The Hunting Ground film. It traces a group of student activists and survivors of sexual assault in the US as they fight to hold their universities accountable for their policies.
Heidi La Paglia, Women’s Officer for the National Union of Students, says the NUS is calling on universities to address sexual assault and harassment on their campuses through the screenings.
“Over the last 12 months the NUS has been working to roll out The Hunting Ground Australia Project, which has essentially involved screening the documentary on university campuses to raise awareness of the high prevalence of sexual assault and violence.”
“In turn [it is] encouraging universities to take action through a range of means including the implementation of the above demands, and the roll out of the Australian Human Rights Centre and Commission’s National survey which aims to develop a practice guide for responding to sexual assault on campus.”
UniSA held a screening of the film in the closing weeks of May, followed by a panel discussion with Sharon Lockwood from Yarrow Place, Senior Constable Joy Anderson of SAPOL, Dr Nicole Moulding of UniSA, UniSA Pro-Vice Chancellor of Student Equity and Engagement Laura-Anne Bull and myself!
The turnout was quite successful and students were able to directly engage with UniSA senior leadership about the processes and procedures to follow if incidences occur at UniSA, fleshing out any gaps and improvements that need to be made and emphasising a stance of zero tolerance to all cases.
UniSA leadership acknowledged the need for accessible and clear reporting processes for students, and clear repercussions for students facing claims.
Heidi says The Hunting Ground screenings in Australia have shown the power of what student activism can achieve.
“The fact that The Hunting Ground film and campaign started in the United States and spread to Australia I think shows a lot about the power of student activism, and students can make significant change by working together.”
“While the situation is obviously slightly different in Australia – for example we don’t have Title IX which, as shown in the film, Annie and Andrea used to get the issue of university sexual assault onto the national political agenda.”
“We have already seen our push to raise awareness of the issue get huge amounts of coverage in the media, and our push to make change receive the support of several MPS, for example Jo Haylen in NSW recently did a speech citing the importance of addressing the issue.”
“Overall I think the best thing we can learn from the US is that student activism is powerful.”
The Hunting Ground screenings have been coupled with a campaign by Universities Australia called Respect. Now. Always. The campaigns aims included raising awareness that sexual assault and harassment are unacceptable at Australian university campuses, and pushing to lift the visibility of services at universities. It also calls on universities to establish consensus-based best practice models for reporting incidents and supporting students who disclose sexual assault or harassment.
However Heidi says that the Respect. Now. Always. campaign hasn’t always addressed concerns that the NUS has heard from the Talk About It survey.
“While the Respect, Now, Always campaign has helped somewhat to raise awareness of the issue, we do not think that it addresses the concerns that have continually been reported by students through a number of avenues, including in the ‘Talk About It’ survey.”
“Some of the most important ones we believe are that universities are largely failing to follow up with survivors who seek help after experiencing sexual assault, and that the policies and protocols on the majority of campuses are unclear, and do not have proper procedures for supporting survivors or dealing with perpetrators.”
In the second half of the year, the NUS will be running the SUPPORT STUDENT SAFETY, STOP THE WAR ON WOMEN CAMPAIGN, which Heidi says “aims to give students the voice that they have largely been denied, and to put pressure on universities to take the actions that need to happen to ensure that students feel safe on campus.”
It aims to raise awareness of the high prevalence of sexual harassment, assault and violence at universities; empower students (particularly those who are survivors) to have their voices heard; and encourage universities to roll out the national sexual assault survey without delay, and to implement the following:
- Adequate lighting, 24/7 security, and safe spaces for women
- Stand-alone zero tolerance policies on sexual harassment, assault and violence, with clear repercussions for perpetrators
- Accessible and clear reporting processes, with effective remedies for survivors
- Sexual assault counsellors on every campus
- Mandatory consent training for all staff and students
Students wishing to engage with the campaign can do so both online and through a number of activities at UniSA in the second half of the year.
There will be a student rally on the 16th of July in Sydney at 3pm at the University of Technology, and students who can’t make the rally are encouraged to engage online through the Hashtags #supportstudentsafety #stopthewaronwomen @nuswomens @uniaus @thehuntingground
For UniSA, USASA will be holding various stalls, petition signings and photo campaigns across SP5 for students to get involved with.
For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org .
If you need any help or want to talk to anyone about any of the above mentioned issues, please contact UniSA Counselling Services on 1300 301 703 for Metropolitan campuses; 08 8723 1999 for the Mount Gambier campus; or 08 8645 8233 for the Whyalla campus.
Words by Kayla Dickeson, Magill Representative for the University of South Australia Student Association; South Australian Women’s Officer for the National Union of Students