After the viral success of the #MeToo social media campaign, the coming forward of female MPs who have survived assault, and the famous faces speaking up about the abuse they have suffered away from the camera, you’d be forgiven for thinking advancements towards tackling the issue of gender-based violence were woefully behind.
And in many ways, they are. The Crown Prosecution Service continues to fail to put rape cases in front of juries, cuts in police numbers leave rising complaints poorly investigated, women’s services are underfunded and boys continue to grow up in a patriarchal society that indoctrinates them to male privilege.
Allow us to share a slither of good news for you, however. Several of the biggest universities in London have taken an innovative new approach to tackling sexual violence and harassment on campus. Institutions such as Goldsmiths, Kings College London, UCL, London South Bank, Imperial and LSE have teamed up with local women’s services for specialist training and policy revision to better support student survivors and foster of culture of zero tolerance against abuse.
Carrie Magee, the training manager at Solace Women’s Aid in North London, a centre for support for survivors of gender-based violence, has been working to deliver a specialist programme for LSE University.
“It’s been quite an involved piece of work so far,” she tells Shevolution. “LSE are really committed to this. This isn’t a superficial engagement. They are looking towards long-term change.
“I think it’s really important. Sexual violence is underreported in all cases, across all institutions. It is creating a culture in universities of fear for the everyday existence of students.
“University is not just where they learn, but it is a place where they live. It is vital that students are supported so they are able to move forward where they are and have the help they need to do so. All organisations could benefit from this work.
“Solace Women’s Aid is an organisation that has over 40 years of experience. We have so much knowledge in this field. We are learning from other interventions in higher education settings, so for specialist services to be involved is really vital.”
Joy Whyte, Interim Head of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at LSE, outlined some of the key initiatives the new partnership has put in place.
“The initiatives range from an online reporting tool, which allows for anonymous as well as named reports, and a policy review, to ensure that our procedural arrangements address evolving good practice,” she says.
“Following expert training by Solace Women’s Aid, we are about to launch a new network of trained ‘safe contacts’, trained members of staff who specialise in responding to disclosures of sexual assault.
“We are also offering training on consent and positive bystander interventions to all the School’s students, including face-to-face workshops for those in key roles in student societies and halls of residence.”
The scheme will be monitored and perfected, and is expected to set an example to be rolled out across other UK universities in the future.
“We are confident that these initiatives will not only encourage increased reporting and confidence in a robust institutional response, but also contribute to good practice throughout the higher education sector,” Whyte added.
The new move to tackle sexual assault was funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, who awarded £2.45million – money that will go directly back into the women’s services conducting the training to help survivors in the local communities.
The money was made available after the Office of National Statistics and the National Union of Students reported that 17% of new students say that they experienced sexual harassment during their first week of term. A staggering half of female students admitted that they suffered harassment on a campus night out.
Julie*, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity, suffered the trauma of sexual violence within a relationship while she was at university. It severely impacted her ability to focus and learn.
“I would zone out in lectures, and what happened would re-run in my head when I was alone and trying to work,” she says.
“I was never able to tell anyone at the time, let alone the University. I felt like this was something I had to deal with alone and that my tutors would feel uncomfortable about it, like it wasn’t really their job.”
She went on to speak of the importance of new schemes, like the one set up between LSE and Solace Women’s Aid, to raise awareness and understanding of the challenges students face while coming to terms with abuse.
“Knowing that there are dedicated professionals you can talk to when you are going through this and get some support is amazing, such a big step forward,” she added.
“If this was in place when I was at university it would have made me feel like they take it seriously, they recognise this is happening, they care and they want to help you get the best support for you at the time.”
The goal of the continuing scheme, Magee tells us, is to implement a specialist on-site support worker, not unlike the positions recently opened at Cambridge and Oxford Universities for sexual assault officers.
“There is scope for somebody on campus,” Magee concludes. “There has been a feeling that this isn’t something confined to LSE, that it’s a work in progress.”
Schools, are you reading? Businesses, too. Here’s hoping affirmative action like this to end gender-based violence becomes the norm across all institutions and organisations, not just in higher education.
First published October 27 2017