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International Women's Day: Tackling sexual violence on campus – and tackling sexism everywhere!

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Written by Dr Pam Alldred, Principal Investigator of the USVreact project

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International Women’s Day can prompt us to think about how we can prevent and respond to gender-related violence, and as a university community there are things that staff and students can do.

From the women's liberation movements of the 1970s onwards, there has been a growing awareness of the sexual harassment that happens in every section of society, and the ‘Me Too’ movement (#MeToo) and Hollywood responses have highlighted how this affects women (mostly) in the workplace.

This popular activism is helping to problematise the widespread cultural trope that feminists have been calling ‘rape culture’. Since rape culture is fuelled by the objectification of women’s (and increasingly other) bodies, it seems fitting that the media and film industry are now prominent in the fight to expose sexual harassment and sexual violence.  

We need to do more than be ready to identify sexual harassment, though. We need to actively prevent it and challenge the conditions that foster it, including sexist and sometimes racist objectification.

Universities have developed strategies, policies and practices to respond to and to prevent non-consensual sexual relations, and some of them before they were recommended by Universities UK in its 2016 report. Over the past year, Universities have been focussing on tackling:

  • a culture of sexual harassment
  • the staggering prevalence of rape and sexual harassment, as shown by NUS evidence
  • the under-reporting of sexual harassment and sexual violence
  • problematic sexual behaviour within student–student, staff–student and staff–staff relations.

We have probably only just started to hear the extent of the problem with staff–student relations, as the Freedom of Information investigation by The Guardian in 2017 uncovered many cases that have not – or not yet – been tested in court. But this just highlights the breadth of the problem, and that it’s not just a problem of student culture.

Brunel University London is leading the way in one aspect of universities’ response to sexual harassment and violence. The USVreact: the Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence project, led by Brunel’s Social Work Division, has seen 22 universities across Europe collaborate to train over 1000 staff to be better able to respond to students disclosing sexual harassment, violence or abuse to them. The 2 years of European Union co-funding is ending, and universities now need to sustain the training for staff, as well as launch campaigns to prevent sexual violence.

As International Women's Day is being marked on campuses across the world, and London sees the sixth annual #March4Women, one group of Brunel students will be talking about women's experiences of gender-related violence. For the Social Work students, domestic abuse is already on the curriculum. However, they will mark International Women’s Day with an extra session with a guest speaker from a local domestic abuse sanctuary, have a chance to ask about the gendering of interpersonal violence, and in a lecture discuss the specific issues that women living with dementia may experience.

They will be prompted to think of ideas for prevention, for challenging sexist and heterosexist assumptions, and for promoting healthy relationships. Social Work has lately been framed as solely reactive, but it has a social justice remit, too – and our Social Work students might be the very people to lead ‘consent conversation’ workshops with their peers, as at some universities.

Staff too have the opportunity to act on this, and Brunel staff can register their interest in attending a ‘Supporting Students Disclosing Sexual Violence’ training course. It’s true that men experience sexual violence as well as women, and the figures are shocking – so if we all made commitments on International Women’s Day to attend this course, then surely the Brunel community will become more understanding about sexual violence and better able to prevent gender-related violence, whoever is affected, at Brunel and beyond.

Follow @USVreact on Twitter, or read the final report from the USVreact project.

Brunel staff can register their interest for a ‘Supporting Students Disclosing Sexual Violence’ by selecting from this workshop list.