UMSU’s response to the AHRC report

In the wake of the release of today’s Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) survey results, many things are clear – one of them is that the Australian student community deserves an apology.

To any student, past or present, who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault on our campus – we are sorry. To any student who has not received what they needed from the University in dealing with sexual harassment or sexual assault – we are sorry. The data shows us that, historically, you have been failed by those who were supposed to be looking out for you.

Still, we must do better than simple words. This is the moment when universities have the chance to rise to an unprecedented opportunity by owning the problem. They have the capacity to enact cultural change on a scale that we can only dream about in the general community, and restore students’ faith in their institutions.

The results reveal some truly disturbing trends. Over 3,000 students nationwide were sexually assaulted in 2015 and 2016. And the fact that 83% of students said that the most recent incident involved men as the only perpetrators clearly indicates that this is a gendered issue. Broad, sweeping campaigns that raise awareness about the concepts of respect and consent are not enough. Universities need to be thinking how to address the root of the problem and change the behaviours that lead to sexual harassment and assault. This begins with addressing behaviours such as sexist jokes and innuendos, which are often brushed off or excused.

Although we were aware that underreporting of sexual harassment and assault is an issue, the survey has revealed the staggering extent of this. 94% of students who were sexually harassed, and 87% of students who were sexually assaulted in a university setting did not make a formal report.

Beyond thinking they did not need help or that the incident was serious enough, students do not report incidents of sexual assault because they thought it would be too hard to prove. We need to overhaul our processes and procedures for reporting, to improve from a situation where 62% of students nationally had little or no knowledge about how to report an incident of sexual assault. This is especially prevalent at the University of Melbourne, where 71.7% of respondents indicated that they knew nothing or very little about where to go within the University to report.

This is indicative of a culture within Universities where students are discouraged from speaking up about their experiences. This is a culture where social media pages like ‘Hotties of Melbourne Uni’ are allowed to stay up for years and are seen as just a part of campus culture. The data shows that 29% of students at the University of Melbourne witnessed sexual harassment taking place on campus in 2016, a rate that is four percent higher than the national average. This approach is perpetuated by University websites boasting safety tips implying that female students are fully responsible for what happens to them. These ‘tips’ often refer to the amount of alcohol consumed, without addressing stereotypical gender belief.

As a student community, we have to take this opportunity to stand up, with the weight of this research behind us, and make the unwavering statement that this behaviour will not be tolerated in the places we learn and grow. We cannot afford to be bystanders to an issue as systemic and insidious as the culture that allows sexual harassment to happen in the first place.

As a student union we also need to talk about what we will do to contribute to this change in culture; we need to ensure that our events are safe for all those who attend, and that students feel safe and supported to speak up about sexual violence. We know that orientation camps and university parties are events where incidents are likely to happen, so we have been working to make our events safer for students. In light of the survey data we will be continuing to do this in the months to come.  

We fully support the recommendations made by the AHRC, and we will announce our own measures in addition. We will work closely with the University to lead change and to involve students in this process. I remain cautiously optimistic that the AHRC’s decision to issue recommendations based on the survey results will provide an accountability mechanism. We hope to see an auditing process similar to the one put in place between the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and Victoria Police following a similar report conducted in 2015. UMSU represents students from a diverse range of backgrounds (including students with disabilities and queer and international students) and is often the first port of call for distressed students, so we will aim to represent their voices and hold the University to account.

Ultimately, this is a moment where the rug is being pulled back and decades of inaction brought to light. We need to look hard at the mess that lies beneath and then throw the rug away so there is nowhere left to sweep the issue. Then actually do something about it.

If you have experienced sexual harassment or assault, or you know someone who has, some of the following services may be able to help address these needs: umsu.unimelb.edu.au/support/survivors

Yan Zhuang
UMSU President