CW: This article refers to sexual assault and sexual harassment.
In 2013, it was well-known, though not institutionally acknowledged, that a large number of students were being sexually assaulted while at university. Students widely felt at risk in residential colleges, clubs, and societies. Sharna Bremner, founder of End Rape on Campus (EROC), was working in International Student Support during her time at university, hearing disclosures from people who didn’t know where to turn or what resources they could access after a traumatic experience. Since 2013, when Bremner founded EROC, she has worked to provide both direct support to students impacted by sexual violence, and to lobby state and federal governments for change.
End Rape on Campus has grown since 2013 — it is now a registered charity, Bremner now working with another volunteer. She continues to fit lobbying and support work around other paid employment, but has not given up bold goal of ending rape on campus since ten years of establishing EROC.
Since its inception in 2013, End Rape on Campus has produced two key reports — Connecting the Dots report in 2017, and The Red Zone report in 2018. Connecting the Dots provides an overview of the problem of sexual assault in tertiary education, which was then submitted to the Australian Human Rights Commission University Sexual Assault and Harrassment project. It pointed out the lack of data that existed surrounding sexual assault, support required by survivors and the barriers they face to reporting sexual assault within university communities.
The Red Zone report was a meticulous investigation into sexual violence and hazing in Australian university residential colleges. The product makes a horrifying read, revealing the many ways students at residential colleges humiliate, harass, and harm one another without respect for bodily autonomy. Most notably, the report hones in on residential college culture at The University of Sydney, and acts to tease out the reasons why one in eight of all attempted or completed sexual assaults that happen at University occur during orientation week – where binge drinking and hazing thrive.
According to Bremner, the colleges “are sites of extreme privilege. They are sites of often quite racist, homophobic attitudes.” Five years after the Red Zone report, Bremner said “we haven’t seen a sort of systemic change within those cultures that we would need to see to address those high rates of violence… we don’t think the Colleges have taken enough action.”
She also highlighted the work that student activists have been doing to lobby for change and prevent sexual violence on campus. “It’s been an issue for decades, and uni students have really been leading the work to address sexual violence more broadly.
“University students were the ones calling for improved justice responses, calling for alternative options like restorative justice processes. And they’ve been doing that long before #MeToo. Long before Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year, long before Chanel Contos’ petitions, uni students were the ones out on the streets demanding action.”
Six years after the Change the Course report, which brought the issue of sexual harassment at Australian universities to national attention, and the interim Universities Accords report, organisations are still fighting. This report was commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the first of its kind, making all subsequent national-level research into the state of sexual violence at universities follow in its footsteps.
Universities have since witnessed token changes, such as USyd’s move to change the name of Orientation week (O-week) to Welcome Week, for reasons only known to upper management. While the implementation of mandatory consent training is a step in the right direction, there are myriad flaws in the program, and overarching cultural changes are still essential.
The University Accords process has given some hope to activists in the field. While wholly inadequate and typically timid in suggesting actions, it at the very least acknowledges sexual assault and sexual harrassment as a systemic issue across the higher education sector. In a section on the duty of care that universities have for their students, it acknowledges the devastating impacts of sexual assault, sexual harrasment, and the inadequacy of institutional responses.
Following the release of the interim report, Jason Clare, the federal Minister for Education, gave a statement on the 3rd of August. He called for a task force of education ministers from all states and territories to hear from an expert on sexual violence prevention, and to make recommendations to universities to ensure that reporting systems are sufficient.
Speaking in parliament, Clare said, “the actions universities have taken to address this, to date, have not been good enough. We have the research, we have the evidence, we know the scope of the problem, we have to act.”
Bremner acknowledged that this was the biggest win they have had to date — “It looks like for the first time ever, we may actually get some movement on this. He acknowledged that universities have not done enough and that is a massive step forward.”
However, there are flaws within the plan — there are no independent bodies set up to track the progress of sexual assault prevention programs, and there is nothing in the Bill to impose consequences on universities which lack in implementing necessary changes. The expert advisor must also be an expert not only in sexual violence prevention but also on the university system, and the systems that govern university residences such as residential colleges.
End Rape on Campus is sure to be watching the outcomes of this task force, and the University Accords more broadly. They have most recently launched their #IDeserveSafety campaign, which seeks to link stories to statistics by showing that every number has a face behind it.
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