Making sense of universities response to AHRC survey

The recent survey from the Australian Human Rights Commission received over 1,800 submissionsfrom more than 30,000 students across all 39 Australian universities. Theresults were damning – Change the course:National report on sexual harassment at Australian universities revealedthat although 6.9 per cent of respondents experienced sexual assault in auniversity setting in 2015 or 2016, only 1.6 per cent reported it. There was asimilar pattern when it came to sexual harassment in 2016, with 21 per centreporting an incident despite 51 per cent of students harassed at least once.

Four significant contributing factors were highlighted asrecurring themes in the event of sexual assault and harassment:

  • Attitudes towards women
  • Alcohol
  • Perpetrator abusing a position of power
  • Residential settings

Significant effort must be committed to rectifying each ofthese areas, but investigation into students’ reporting of sexual harassmentand assault uncovered arguably the biggest issue of all. An astounding 94 percent of students who had been sexually harassed did not make a formal complaintto anyone at the university, and 87 per cent of sexual assault victims did thesame. Roughly 60 per cent of students who experienced harassment or assaultweren’t aware of where they should go to file a report.

The prevalence of this uncertainty is one area thatuniversities must attack head on. It is difficult enough for victims to speakabout their experiences to someone whose job it is to assist them, let alone goon a wild goose chase just to find the appropriate person.

It is worth taking into consideration that ‘universitysetting’ encompasses public transport to and from university, indicating thatnot all acts of sexual assault or harassment occur on campus. There is debateover whether this should be the responsibility of the university – after all,what would happen if you were sexually assaulted on the train home from yourworkplace?

Nevertheless, universities are looking to get on the front footand have already compiled a 10-point plan to address students being sexuallyharassed and assaulted. It is great that there has been such a swift reactionfrom the university fraternity, but hopefully this is not a token tactic simplyto appease concerned stakeholders in the now, but an approach that will improvestudent safety and culture in the long term.

Fixing this problem isn’t as simple as tellingstudents where to go if there is an incident. A shift in attitude is required,away from the culture of victim-blaming that can significantly influencewhether someone subjected to sexual assault or harassment feels comfortablethat their complaint will be taken seriously. 

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