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Human Rights Commission Launches Landmark Uni Sexual Assault Study

23 August 2016 at 2:03 pm
Ellie Cooper
The Australian Human Rights Commission and the nation’s 39 universities are working together to conduct a survey assessing the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment of students.

Ellie Cooper | 23 August 2016 at 2:03 pm


Human Rights Commission Launches Landmark Uni Sexual Assault Study
23 August 2016 at 2:03 pm

The Australian Human Rights Commission and the nation’s 39 universities are working together to conduct a survey assessing the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment of students.

universities australia

A representative sample of students from all Australian universities will be asked to participate in the Respect. Now. Always survey, which was launched Tuesday.

Commission president Gillian Triggs said the initiative was a “unique collaboration” between the human rights agency and the university peak body Universities Australia, with support from the National Union of Students and the National Tertiary Education Union.

Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins told Pro Bono Australia News the survey was an important step to preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“We know that gender equality is a problem across our community, we know that high numbers of people, particularly women, are experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault, and we know that this happens at university campuses, as it does in lots of other places – workplaces, schools, homes,” Jenkins said.

“So it’s important because the universities, firstly, have recognised that they need to take a more proactive role to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault.

“It’s also important because they have accepted that the best way to improve how they’re dealing with this issue is to get an independent agency to give proper research and support to them, to come to the experts to get help and to be really open and transparent about what they’re doing.”

Jenkins also said the initiative was the first of its kind.  

“Universities Australia has got the commitment of 39 vice chancellors, so that itself is fantastic, it tells us that the issue is important,” she said.

“It’s also, as we understand it, the first that we’ve heard of such important national institutions working with its national human rights agency to improve experiences… we haven’t found across the globe any other similar initiative that really brings together the expertise of human rights agencies with… every national university.”

The commission said collaborative work between the Hunting Ground Australia Project, the National Union of Students, the Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of NSW and Universities Australia underpins the survey.

The results will also build on the student union’s Talk About It survey released earlier this year, in which more than 70 per cent of female students said that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time at university.

Jenkins said recent reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment were worrying. She said the survey would provide valuable information about its prevalence, nature and reporting.

“We’re expecting that we will learn that particularly women at universities are experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault. We expect to know that but we don’t really have a sense of the nature and prevalence of it, so we’re keen to learn how common and where and when these incidents occur,” she said.

“Having said that, any incident of sexual assault is unacceptable, so if we find it’s lower than the community [average] it’s still a very important issue for universities to consider.

“While we don’t know, we do expect to learn more about what the actual experience of sexual assault and sexual harassment is, and we do expect to learn more about what the support services are like and the responses.

“We hear anecdotally that the responses are not always good, that people don’t always feel safe reporting, that they don’t find the process of reporting positive, they find that quite traumatic. So I expect that we will also find out some information that will really help us improve the design of that response.”  

She said while universities were already trying to improve their policies and procedures, she would like to see two key responses off the back of the survey.

“One is that universities all acknowledge the issue and get better at responding to issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” she said.

“And the second change I’m looking for is that over time, the incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment will reduce with the aim that this does not occur to members of our community, and particularly students and universities.”

The survey launch comes as the University of Sydney’s women’s officers from the past 10 years publically condemned reporting systems and the administration’s “resistance to change”.

In an open letter, the 15 officers accused the university of deliberately stalling on action against sexual assault and said it had failed to provide a “safe environment that is conducive to learning”.

Their letter also makes 12 demands, including participating in the Australian Universities survey.

If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault or domestic violence, support is available at 1800RESPECT.

Ellie Cooper  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Ellie Cooper is a journalist covering the social sector.

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