1000km in her shoes: Emilie Heath on the campaign against sexual violence in clinical placements

Emilie Heath is raising awareness of unsafe conditions faced by nursing students.

This week, Honi reporter Laura Bancroft sat down with Emilie Heath from the ‘1000km In Her Shoes’ campaign to discuss sexual violence experienced by female nursing students on clinical placement.

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Laura Bancroft (LB): For those unfamiliar with the ‘1000km In Her Shoes’ Campaign, could you explain what it is, and what you hope to achieve?

Emilie Heath (EH): The ‘1000km In Her Shoes’ involves me running and cycling every day to raise awareness of the unsafe conditions nursing students are put through when travelling to work, and in the work environment itself. I wanted to show people who had also experienced sexual violence on clinical placement that someone was trying to do something about it.

Two weeks into [the campaign], I wrote a letter to the Dean of Nursing. As always, the institutional response from the University was disappointing — it’s always “there’s nothing we can do.” If we’re not going to see these changes from the top, I thought, why don’t we create a collective network where students can help students? 

So what started as a campaign has now become a fund, paying for $50 uber vouchers for students to get them home safe. It also pays for opal cards, with a $500 stipend for international students, as we don’t get concession cards in New South Wales. It’s mutual aid — not a charity or a foundation. It’s seeing the need and doing something about it. I’ve been really frustrated by the nursing school, but look at what we did in two weeks, the funds were there. That’s how it started and where it’s going. I’m in week three now.

I’m low income, always have been, and to see how many barriers there are to education, let alone going into a public service job like nursing. Students should not have to ride and run 1000 kilometres to a placement, because these barriers exist. 

LB: You signified that the University is liable for the unsafe environments that they’ve sent female nursing students into. How would you like them to start taking accountability and responsibility for this?

EH: I think what we need first and foremost is education. The University needs to take an honest look at the statistics and give us a heads up that you will be sent into these places where people will try and harm you. We never really got a heads up that was happening. It was always just like “oh remember to press your shirt remember to wear black shoes”. 

[The nursing school] keeps saying they have all of these pathways and procedures for reporting, but I’m here to say they don’t work. I’ve been doing this for almost a year, trying to talk to the nursing school and I’m still not 100% sure what these pathways are. I have met resistance every single step of the way — I’ve had a facilitator who didn’t take [my report] seriously, and completely negated my experience. 

Reporting sexual harassment and assault is a tough thing to do. I have personally been criticized by the University for not coming forward sooner — as if it was my fault that I didn’t report it. That’s unacceptable. Another thing that the university is really pushing back on, is that they haven’t heard about [sexual harassment and assault] from any other student. But when you look at the national conversation, why would any woman come forward? The [University] treats us terribly, they tell us that our experiences didn’t happen, they don’t matter, that they’re not serious enough, that there’s nothing that they can do. That needs to change.

LB: We know that historically health care workers, but particularly nurses have been mistreated through daily workplace interactions, and the lack of support from both federal and state governments. What are the gendered aspects of the mistreatment of nurses? 

EH: What nurses experience is gendered violence. Healthcare situations can become about power balances, where male patients feel like they have no control or power in their health care situation. They take back some power by committing violence against women, which is inexcusable. There has never been any protection for women. But also, nursing is seen as women’s work that has traditionally been undervalued.  

LB: In the article you wrote for Honi a few months ago, you raised that the sexual violence health care workers experienced during clinical placements points to a larger cultural problem within Australian society. What are some ways we can combat this toxic, misogynistic culture?

EH: For women on the individual level, joy and rest are acts of resistance. For everyone else, listen, uplift, and believe the women in your life. There is something to be said for gathering around and supporting women in all facets of life to help them feel empowered. It is however more of a systemic, institutionalised problem. Currently, the way the law is structured, if you are an employee of a hospital, you get workers protections.There are also legal avenues if you are a visitor to a public place and you get sexually harassed. However, there is this grey area of unpaid workers, which include students on a clinical placement. We’re not employees of the hospital or the university. and there are no legal protections for unpaid workers. That needs to change, because unpaid workers are some of the most vulnerable in society. 

On a university policy level, the bullying harassment policy has adopted its definition of sexual harassment directly from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. However, they’ve taken it and put such a high threshold for sexual harassment that it doesn’t protect women at all. As it stands now, it helps no one except the university avoid liability.

LB: Do you have a message out there to female nursing students who are currently battling with this sort of abuse?EH: The message I have is that you deserve better. You deserve a lot better than the way things are currently structured. There’s no excuse for sexual violence that women in general experience, but specifically nursing students have experienced, and there’s no excuse for the inaction of the University and hospitals. It’s not okay, and I think it’s very rare that we hear that. When there’s been so much inaction you internalize it, but know you deserve much better.