No More Silence

30 / 03 / 2016

Andrea Durbach is Professor of Law and Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at UNSW. Born and educated in South Africa, ampoule  she practised as a political trial lawyer and human rights advocate, case representing victims and opponents of apartheid laws. Prior to her academic appointment at UNSW in 2004, Andrea was Executive Director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). From 2011 to 2012, Andrea was Deputy Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission and in 2013, she was engaged by the Australian Defence Abuse Response Taskforce to develop, implement and evaluate a reparative framework to address the needs of Defence Force victims of gender-based violence and reduce and prevent harmful conduct. Andrea is currently co-investigator (with Louise Chappell and Sarah Williams) on a 3 year ARC grant which examines the potential and limitations of ‘transformative’ reparations to combat sexual violence against women post-conflict.

In 2011, I was honoured to be appointed Deputy Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission while the then Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, led the Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force. During the term of my twelve month appointment, four events occurred which have combined to shape a major research project which adopts as its focus, gender violence in university settings.

In June, 2011, the National Union of Students published the findings and recommendations of their Talk About It survey which reported responses from over 1500 women students to questions about their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Although a small sample, the data was significant with 67% of respondents reporting an unwanted sexual experience, and 17% reporting rape. Only 3% who had experienced assault or sexual harassment reported incidents to the university (and 2% to the police) and the majority who did report to their universities, were dissatisfied with the response. Importantly, 67% of respondents to the NUS survey who had experienced sexual harassment, assault or stalking, reported that their mental health had been affected.

Five months later, in November 2011, the Australian Human Rights Commission Report on the Review into the Treatment of Women at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) was tabled in Parliament. A key recommendation of the ADFA report was that:

“ADFA is not alone in facing these [sexual harassment and sexual assault] challenges. Other tertiary institutions and residential colleges have similar concerns.”

In early 2012, the former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, including its causes and consequences, Professor Rashida Manjoo, accepted the Australian Human Rights Commission’s invitation to conduct the first ever study tour to Australia by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women. Over two intense weeks, we travelled around the country speaking to women in refugee communities, from Indigenous communities, women with disabilities, working women and students and the testimony we heard reinforced the NUS survey and ADFA report findings that universities – like other institutions, such as the military – are not immune from sexual violence and the enduring harm borne by those who experience its different forms.

When documentary director/producers, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War – a bold and disquieting investigation into sexual assault in the U.S. military – was shown on university campuses across America in 2012, men and women students would approach and email Amy and Kirby after screenings, requesting them to focus their lens on university campuses, saying: “It happened to me on this campus.” Three years later, their film The Hunting Ground (officially released in Australia in June this year) has triggered a national, and increasingly international, examination of the prevalence and mismanagement of sexual assault on American university campuses. The film highlights in particular the critical role universities play in either eroding or ensuring the prospect of positive, productive and rewarding university lives for those students who have experienced harm, which, in the words of founding CEO of Universities Australia, Professor Glenn Withers, “?is so? central ?to? the? educational ?purpose ?and? responsibility ?of? Australia’s ?universities.” Alexandra Brodsky, Yale student survivor who appears in The Hunting Ground, underscores this responsibility: “Sexual violence holds back individuals from flourishing. That feels very real to students. It’s not abstract when you’re failing out of school because you have to share a library with your rapist.”

COURTESY OF RADIUS-TWC

THE HUNTING GROUND PREMIER – COURTESY OF RADIUS-TWC

The release of The Hunting Ground in Australia offers an important opportunity to bring visibility in Australia to a subject that is frequently met with dismissal, disdain and denial. While there are clear cultural and institutional differences between the student experience at American and Australian universities, the points of commonality between American and Australian students who have experienced sexual harassment and assault are significant and warrant an Australian response. Building on the work initiated by the NUS, The Hunting Ground Australia Project (THGAP) has engaged the Australian Human Rights Centre (AHRCentre) at UNSW and the Australian Human Rights Commission to develop the Australian Universities’ Sexual Assault and Harassment Student Survey – an independent survey directed at collating national data on prevalence, student reporting experiences and preferred responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment in university settings. The survey, which will be administered on a voluntary, anonymous and confidential basis, will be implemented by the Commission with support from Universities Australia, who have recently launched their Respect. Now. Always. campaign to coincide with university wide screenings of The Hunting Ground.

The analysis of the survey data by the Australian Human Rights Commission, qualitative interviews and our findings from comparative national and international research will be combined to develop good practice model policies and protocols on reporting and responding to sexual assault and sexual harassment. These will be available for adaptation and application across the Australian university sector. Central to the development of the policies and procedures project is the student voice: “It ?is ?important? that? students ?play ?a ?part ?in ?this ?process,” wrote NUS National Women’s Officer, Courtney Sloan wrote in the 2011 Talk About It Report, ?”to ?ensure? that? an ?issue? that? overwhelmingly ?affects? them ?is? dealt? with ?in ?a? manner ?that ?best? addresses ?their? needs.?”

As a human rights lawyer and researcher my work is primarily directed at the end point of violations. As an academic and teacher, my concern is that the potential of young men and women is allowed to flourish and that we take pre-emptive steps to facilitate a culture of learning that is respectful of other, an environment of freedom and safety on university campuses and institutional leadership that is supportive and appropriate to the needs of victims and fiercely intolerant of those who feel entitled and emboldened by the humiliation of their fellow beings. The long-term impact of sexual violence on an individual can be destructive of careers, relationships, and social contribution; this enduring harm can be exacerbated where the response to a disclosure of sexual harassment or assault has been inappropriate or inadequate. This project offers Australian universities a critical opportunity to support an initiative that will not only identify the extent of unacceptable conduct but ensure consistent, rigourous and appropriate management of reports of harm. Hopefully, it will also serve to undermine a culture that enables (and even encourages) harmful sexual behavior.

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