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What do we want? Safe Universities.

By Megan Whytcross

YWCA Victoria Member and Volunteer

Sexual assault and harassment is a growing problem in Australia and worldwide, particular in universities.  The incidences in universities are amongst the highest for sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking.

The majority of the approximately 1.3 million university-goers in Australia are between the ages of 18 and 24, making attending university or living on a university campus/accommodation facility one of the first adult experiences since leaving their family home.

Attending university is an exciting time for young Australian’s, with all of the liberties they can imagine, with limited or no adult supervision. This experience should be a positive one, but in many cases it leads to traumatic and unwanted happenings that stay with young people for life. Astounding percentages of young women have been raped, assaulted or physically and/or mentally attacked by perpetrators on campus or at university hosted events, many offenders getting away without punishment.  Moreover, the predominance of drunken and disorderly events provides a toxic environment for young people who are placed in situations where they do not how to respond or are not in a state to make safe and responsible decisions. Too commonly you hear stories where people ‘don’t remember’ what happened or waking up in situations of danger that wouldn’t have happened if something was in place to stop it.

Not surprisingly the issue has angered young students who feel unsafe to live in student accommodation or attend classes without being attacked or running into their attackers once an incidence has occurred without protection. Australian universities are collaborating together to implement strategies to combat the growing problem, with campaigns such as ‘Respect.Now.Always’, which emulates the zero tolerance that universities are saying they have against sexual assault and harassment and are dedicated to responding to sexual assault and harassment. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the issue on campuses in order to empower those who have experienced sexual assault to feel they can seek the help and support they need.

This approach has been emulated partly from an American film ‘The Hunting Ground’ which has successfully got people discussing the matter of sexual assault on campus openly, as it was often hushed as to not denote the universities reputation, over the safety of the victims. The film is being screened as part of a program from Australian universities to increase responsiveness of the ubiquity the matter has and the push for something to be done.

Other programs have been put in place in institutions such as RMIT, Monash, Deakin and LaTrobe entitled ‘Safer Community’. The initiative aims to provide advice to students and staff on how to manage cases that challenge the safety and wellbeing on members of their establishment. The essential crux of these initiatives is to ensure that unwanted, inappropriate or threatening behaviour is noticed and acted upon before it gets to a situation of assault or rape, putting the onus of responsibility on all members of universities, including staff and students to create a safe environment of mutual respect. 

Often, the issue lies in student’s fear of reporting the occurrence to the appropriate body within the university institution they attend. However, increasingly it is being found that student are reporting the assaults to their universities, who do not assist them to access help or to approach legal bodies to report their offenders.  This is something that simply cannot be accepted, where the responsibility of the university is to maintain the safety and wellbeing of their students who place their trust in them.

The big question looming is what is to be done? Several reports and surveys are revealing qualitative evidence of how this permeates the lives of university students and overshadows what should be a positive experience as a young adult. Implementing a number of practices could be beneficial in creating a safer environment such as: security escorts on campus, more access to specialised counselling, access to reporting incidents, support groups, gender-divided housing, and more serious sanctioning for offenders. Something needs to be done to ensure the safety of young people in university, there is simply no tolerance, and it needs to stop.


Check out the Safer Community programs at these universities - 

Victoria University

University of Melbourne

RMIT

Monash University