This week marks Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week. In the wake of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements alongside a growing wave of women beginning to speak up publicly against their attackers whose power once totally protected them, I want to reflect this week on how much has been achieved here at York and the road we have yet to travel. Sexual violence awareness and consent education continue to be of the utmost priority if we want to work towards a culture shift and ensure that students who need it can access support and feel able to do so. Each and every one of us has the power to make this culture shift happen. The need for Universities to both raise awareness of and respond to the issue of sexual violence and sexual misconduct has also been highlighted further this week by the publication of anonymous reporting statistics by the University of Cambridge.
I’m proud to say that in recent years, YUSU and the University of York have been genuinely proactive in promoting a positive attitude towards sexual consent and respect. In line with this, YUSU Women’s Officers for 2016/7 - myself and Lucy Robinson, developed central university consent and respect talks which were first delivered back in September of 2016 alongside campaigning for a sexual violence reporting system which was implemented in 2017 by the University. This student campaign worked in collaboration with local charity Survive alongside university and student stakeholders, including the YUSU liberation networks. It was based on the notion that sexual violence is a problem, everywhere, and has wide-ranging impact on student communities.
The University of York Women’s Rugby Club (UWYRFC) have also played an instrumental role in helping to ensure that sexual violence and domestic abuse continue to remain a high priority for the University and YUSU. Last year they submitted a policy to YUSU focussed on raising awareness for domestic abuse, increasing signposting for support services, and lobbying the University to adopt a formal policy. UWYRFC have continued to work with IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Service), a charity that supports people affected by domestic abuse and sexual violence across Yorkshire and in November last year, to mark the UN Day to Eliminate Violence, led a Reclaim The Night march in York city centre against sexual violence and harassment, and stood in solidarity with survivors. As Sasha Ellis from UWYRFC noted in her blog about the march: ‘This is not a problem that we can ‘leave’ to others. In the UK, nearly half a million men and women are sexually assaulted every year - over 85,000 women are raped each year. In the world, one in three women will have experienced sexual violence in her lifetime.’ You can read more about the march in UWYRFC’s blog as well as a video from the night on their Instagram page.
Students from UWYRFC lead a Reclaim The Night March in York in November 2017
YUSU has also continued to raise awareness of this issue and develop the provision of support and information for students that may have been affected by sexual violence. This has included:
Research on the prevalence of sexual violence in UK higher education has increased following the seminal NUS report Hidden Marks in 2010. This investigation revealed that 1 in 7 of the female students asked had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault while at university. In a later survey conducted at the University of Cambridge, 28.5% of respondents had been the victim of sexual assault, and 88% of sexually violent incidents were not reported to police or university services (Cambridge 2014). The issue of sexual violence in universities has also recently been assessed by Universities UK in their report on sexual harassment and hate crime, which collated data from 60 universities, and recommended “more work is required to ensure that students have access to the support they need and to foster a culture that mitigates against unacceptable behaviour” (UUK 2016, p.30).
Researchers at the Department of Education at the University of York have been leading on projects that aim to create an institution-wide transformation of culture in relation to sexual harassment and violence. The key objectives of these projects are to educate staff and students about sexual violence, as well as strategies for active intervention and response to disclosures; and alongside this, the development of a clear sexual violence policy and reporting procedures for students and staff alike.
This work has been funded by the European Commission and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Since September 2016, more than 80 staff members and up to 500 student leaders (including Head STYCs, STYCs, College Tutors and members of the YUSU team) have been receiving specialist training in identifying, preventing and responding to sexual violence. These resources were developed by researchers in the Department of Education, in consultation with YUSU, frontline charities and support services (including IDAS, Survive) and Colleges. Student leaders are cascading key messages about respect, consent and sources of support for disclosures of sexual violence through college welcome talks and focussed orientation workshops, reaching up to 5000 students in total. Students will be made aware of the ways in which they can report all forms of ‘student misconduct’ online, in centralised welcome talks. Specialist training will also be made available for academic departments. This ongoing work at the University aims to educate staff and students to identify, intervene and respond to sexual violence in our community.
If you’re interested in the ongoing work the university is doing on sexual violence, please do come along to the USVReact Project Conference locally where you can hear all about it.
The progress that has been made in increasing awareness of this issue and developing training, support, reporting systems and policies has been positive. But it is clear that there is a continuing need to challenge behaviours and attitudes and to provide clear, robust and accessible routes for any students affected by this issue to receive support and report incidents of sexual violence and misconduct. Both the reporting system and the sexual violence policy are big steps in the right direction but more needs to be done to be able to assess and review the extent of this issue at York, for example in the collation of statistics across support services and the option of anonymous reporting.