Continuing the Fight3 December 2020
Content Warning: Sexual Assault and Harassment.
In conversation with Women’s Officers, Aria Sunga and Naomi Smith, and Sexual Harm and Response Coordinator, Patrick Tidmarsh on sexual assault and harassment on campus.
In 2020, University of Melbourne Student Union Women’s Office Bearers, Aria Sunga and Naomi Smith continued their campaign against sexual harassment on campus. They came to Farrago to discuss their actions this year and what they want from the University.
Farrago had the following conversations with the representatives.
What are the statistics? What are the students saying and experiencing, and how has the RESPECT Taskforce been implemented to interact with that?
Naomi: I think everyone will have a different take … but what has impacted us the most is what students have said in that report, it’s not necessarily a statistic, but so many students found it hard to access therapeutic support systems at the university.
Our Safer Community Program is in Stop 1 and doesn’t have it’s own office. Things like that where there’s not actually a safe space to meet and initiating contact is really difficult. When we were reading through the report, we found that many people were struggling with this.
Aria: At the beginning of the year Patrick transformed the statistics from the National Survey and translated them into what it would look like at the University of Melbourne and according to those around 17,000 students would have experienced some kind of sexual harm. Is that right Patrick?
Patrick: That would cover sexual harassments, assaults and rapes both within the community and on campus. Those statistics are taken out of the Human Rights Commissions reports that happened a few years ago and [have been] extrapolated out into what has likely been happening every year.
There’s clearly a problem in all higher education institutions but in terms of Melbourne Uni, the reporting rate of sexual assault is about half, less than half actually, of what it is in the general community… Anything we can do to encourage people to come forward and be really clear with them what will happen when they do report, whether it’s to police or so forth, will improve those reporting statistics.
Is that where the UMSU Sexual Harm and Sexual Assault Working Group has come in?
Aria: Just for some basic terms, the University Respect Taskforce is the strategic group of different people across the University Community including three student representatives: one women’s officer from UMSU, one women’s officer from the Graduate Student Society (GSA) and one UMSU International Representative who is nominated by the president. That group, or how they describe it is purely for coordinating strategy and thinking about what they can do to respond to this crisis. That was the first part of including students in this conversation, but over the past couple of years we’ve realised they’re not really doing anything. They’re just ticking a box.
This year they established a Community of Practice around sexual assault and harassment and it’s meant to be a similar kind of group of stakeholders. They come together to meet and then implement the change in their area of university. To show we’re invested in changing UMSU’s practices to become safer and more inclusive we started the UMSU Sexual Assault and Sexual Harrassment working group as a committee of students’ council. This is comprised of different voting members and departments. All students are welcome to come and it’s a way for us to bring the campaign and activism out of the nexus of this department and broaden our reach.
Naomi: I think we know that every one of us will know someone who has been affected by sexual assault and violence – if something doesn’t change in the next year, more people will be affected.
I would add that the Working Group was added because we wanted more voices through this year. This is not just a women’s issue, there’s so many intersecting experiences and having all those voices in one room was going to be really powerful and important.
How does the working group operate?
Aria: So the working group is set up so it’s chaired by the women’s officer who is a member of the Taskforce, this way they’re able to communicate directly whatenews they have. I’m not chair, Naomi is. But I’m a voting member, so I have the role to discuss issues and vote on [them].
Some of the stuff the working group has achieved is that we’ve created our own set of priorities that I’m aiming to publish on our website soon.We’ve been able to focus our energy more on specific targets and goals. It’s bringing student representatives together to make the campaign really inclusive and a more welcoming environment for people.
Naomi: The working group is a good space for departments to get support for projects that they’re working on. For example, we’ve had Southbank and Clubs talk about individual projects they’ve been talking about, making their campuses and clubs more safer.
Can you talk more about the goals?
Patrick: Students don’t have a lot of money or power, so the working group is to lobby and articulate what’s needed. It’s not always going to produce tangible results.
But for example, coordinating between the GSA and UMSU International so that students speak with a collective voice rather than different people from different organisations that change every year. And just persuading the University to always include students in any messaging or any significant practice change.
Naomi: I think it’s also helpful to note that the Working Group has ratified ten priorities which can change, but those for reference focus on [developing] a therapeutic centre, translating University resources translated into different languages, improving reporting and complaints processes and formalising them properly. The list goes on and on.
What other way have you involved students and organised campaigns?
Aria: So one way, was through the feminist active collective, a nonautonomous collective for all students. Through that collective we created the Student Safety of University Reputation Campaign. It was an open letter that [we] wrote and had edited by the collective to reflect some of the really dire and necessary things to change.
That open letter is currently sitting at almost 700 signatures. We sent it to the vice-chancellor for him to see that this is something that students want [addressed] and it wasn’t just one or two voices in isolation advocating.
Naomi: His response was similar to another letter he sent us which was referring us onto the new community practice. We believe if the University clearly commits to a plan they can be held accountable, at the moment it’s a lot of vague plans … I was disappointed, but [the others weren’t] surprised. We’re going to have to keep going and escalate.
Aria: Regardless of what his response actually entails, we’re working really hard to keep all of these points of pressure on the University. We want them to know we’re on their back, we’re breathing down their back…We’re still going to be holding them accountable. We’re still trying to advocate for a transparent strategy or roadmap that is published for students to see.
Naomi: I think that what also underlines a lot of the public action we take is policy and things going on in the background. Patrick has written many different related policies, Aria and I have as well, whether it be our stance on the consent modules, talking about the University’s respect communications, developing a therapeutic centre … . We’re trying to be so planned and organised that we’re able to set the agenda.
What do you want from the University?
Patrick: So the most important three are a safe place to go and report [one that is separate] from administration. It has to be a therapeutic space. The second is one set of clear guidelines that’s transparent that all students can understand about what will happen when you report … The third [goal] really came from students wanting to report but not necessarily wanting to use the University complaint system or the police … There are no restorative practices of any kind, there are no trained people of any kind that are there to work with the people who complained and those complained about. Students want a greater variety of response that’s not just punitive
Aria: Where students are directed to, [Safer Communities], is severely understaffed. So firstly, students don’t want to report to the university, and secondly even if they did, they all wouldn’t be able to. In the UMSU report it asks for Safer Communities to be better staffed … They sought an external reviewer, and even the reviewer suggested, I think, an increase of five or six staff members.
We’ve talked about getting a specific sexual assault and harassment policy because that’s currently nonexistent in the University community. We’ve been very calm through this entire thing but, it’s a really angering thing to consistently be on the receiving end of [responses about money over wellbeing].
Naomi: Angering is the perfect word. The tone [of the University’s response] is “oh that’s a really great idea, but let’s just shelf that for the next lil while” But I think ultimately it’s a massive wellbeing issue, and it really really hurts and affects so many people’s studies, so there’s not really an excuse not to address it.
What do you think should be on the agenda for the University in 2021, as well as UMSU and the incoming office bearers?
Aria: So this year, 2020, was meant to be a survey year where University’s Australia were meant to be conducting surveys. They postponed it this year, so there’s the very real potential that next year could be a survey year, but I think ramping up the pressure to see if the University can do something before the survey starts happening. I think UMSU, and particularly next year’s women’s office bearers will have to work hard to make sure students participate in that survey to get a really good sample of what students are actually experiencing because that seems to be what the University responds to. A statistic doesn’t tell you that a student who experiences sexual violence [may have] to drop ut because they interact with their perpetrator is too much.
Naomi: I think along with filling out the survey there will have to be a lot of impact planning. Last time a survey was released a lot of retraumatisation of people. So preparing for that which is hard and difficult, but if the student union doesn’t do impact planning, it could really hurt the university community.
Patrick: We also want to include the disproportionate statistics on trans people, people of colour, queer people –– there’s a real intersectionality. We don’t want anyone thinking that sexual assault is just a women’s issue. We want to be as inclusive as possible for people who want to come forward.
Naomi: If students don’t see themselves in the communications, it kind of reinforces the idea that this only occurs in heterosexual relationships. If you just push that narrative it will isolate so many vulnerable people.
Patrick: Otherwise, we’ll keep going back to those ten things and we’ll keep going until they’re done.
Aria Sunga (she/they) and Naomi Smith (she/her) are the outgoing 2020 UMSU Women’s Officers. The Women’s Department is responsible for social events and advocating for the rights of students who are marginalised under the patriarchy. The Women’s email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Tidmarsh (he/him) is the University of Melbourne Sexual Harm Response Coordinator whose role is to support students in advocating for the practices and policies they would like to see regarding sexual assault and harm on campus. His contact email is: email@example.com.
Mickhaella Ermita (she/her) and Srishti Chatterjee (they/them) are the incoming 2021 UMSU Women’s Officers.
The University of Melbourne have been offered a right of reply to this piece.
Anyone wishing for further resources should contact UMSU.