National Day of Action sees students across universities unite against sexual violence

The protest has become the most important of the year among national Wom*n’s Collectives since the AHRC report into campus sexual assault was released in 2017

An image of protesters outside the University of Sydney Photography by Liam Thorne

Content warning: sexual assault 

At midday on Tuesday under the sandstone towers of the Quadrangle, a contingent of students began their march through Victoria Park to the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Calls of “However we dress, wherever we go, yes means yes, no means no,” reverberated during the rally against sexual violence that marked the National Day of Action against Sexual Assault (NDA).

The NDA occurs annually in August, and for the last five years has been broadly championing awareness and demanding action against sexual violence.

The rally began at the Quadrangle with a contingent that featured speakers including USyd Indigenous Officer Akala Newman, Karen Willis of Rape and Domestic Violence Services, and 2016 USyd Wom*n’s Officer and Director of End Rape on Campus Australia, Anna Hush.

Newman gave a poignant acknowledgement of country, drawing attention to the fact that Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by sexual assault. 

“From the time of the First Fleet, Aboriginal people and women were subject to the highest level of sexual assault, and now the highest level of domestic violence and abuse in this country,” she said. Calls of “shame” rang out in response.

Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services, told the crowd about the horrific epidemic of sexual violence on university campuses. “We never need a calendar to tell us when O-Week is on. We can tell you what universities [are putting on O-Week] as they roll out across the state and country, because that’s reflected in the calls to our service,” said Willis. Willis also pointed out that “there will be a predominance of international students [who use our service] and mostly from Asian backgrounds.” In addition to the broad culture of silence around sexual assault, international students face barriers of shame, fear of deportation, and an inability to access support services because they are not Australian.

Hush, who was Wom*n’s Officer at USyd in 2016, looked back on her term, saying “even three years ago, we weren’t having National Days of Action, so it’s really incredible to see this kind of groundswell for people who’ve experienced sexual violence in university settings.” Hush spoke on the work that she has done on behalf of End Rape on Campus Australia, a grassroots feminist advocacy group that works with survivors in university communities across the country. 

“The stories that these survivors tell us are remarkably similar all over the continent. Universities refusing to grant extensions on assignments for people suffering unimaginable trauma, refusing to take complaints unless survivors go to the police even if they have no wish to do so, refusing to make tiny adjustments like changing someone’s tutorial… and then turning around to congratulate themselves on their zero tolerance approach to sexual violence.”

After the speeches concluded, the contingent began their march through Victoria Park. The crowd chanted “break the silence on sexual violence” as they marched. The rally concluded at UTS with a speak-out. From the inter-university contingent, several survivors spoke out about their experiences of sexual assault and criticised their university’s tokenistic and unhelpful responses.

The NDA rally against sexual violence was organised in part by the convenors of the USyd Wom*n’s Collective, Jazzlyn Breen and Layla Mkhayber, alongside Wom*n’s Collectives across Sydney, one day ahead of the official National Day of Action across Australia. As a follow-up to the rally, WoCo will also be hosting a panel to discuss sexual assault on university campuses, taking place on Wednesday 21 August at 6pm.

If you have become distressed upon reading this article, please consult the following: 

NSW Rape Crisis – a 24/7 telephone and online crisis counselling service for anyone in NSW, available at 1800 424 017.