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The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) have released the findings of their ‘Change the Course’ report, sending shockwaves through the University of Tasmania’s (UTas) student body. The results of the report, released on August 1, revealed that 54 per cent of the 484 UTas students surveyed claimed that they had experienced sexual harassment during their time at university. 31 per cent of these students had experienced sexual harassment in the last year, and 0.2 per cent of students surveyed had witnessed another student being sexually assaulted. UTas students are not alone, with sexual assault and harassment besetting universities across Australia. The AHRC claimed that 51 per cent of university students across Australia have experienced sexual harassment and 6.9 per cent have been sexually assaulted. The institutional results published on UTas’ website provides further statistics that confirm these assertions.

These are the statistics:

  • 34 per cent of UTas students have witnessed sexual harassment during their time at university
  • 49 per cent of students sexually assaulted at UTas knew their perpetrator
  • 96 per cent of UTas students who have been sexually harassed have not sought support or assistance from the university
  • 100 per cent of students who were sexually assaulted did not make a formal report of the incident

In response to the findings of the AHRC report, the university has appointed Professor Margaret Otlowski to the position of Pro Vice-Chancellor (Culture and Wellbeing). Otlowski’s focus in this role will be to build a safer, more equitable community at UTas. The creation of Otlowski’s position is arguably intended to inspire confidence in the university and to address the serious concerns brought up by the results of the AHRC report.

Women’s Collective President Saffire Grant, however, is concerned that the university’s approach to ending sexual assault and harassment is largely tokenistic. “They are just words if they are not followed by actions,” says Grant. “We are yet to see action.”

Following the release of the AHRC’s findings, a number of students at UTas have rallied to the cause. They share a common goal: to seek immediate action against sexual assault and harassment on UTas campuses. On August 3 the UTas Women’s Collective, in conjunction with Tasmanian Young Labor, launched the It’s Time for Action – End Sexual Assault on Campus campaign on UTas’ Sandy Bay Campus. The launch included the unveiling of a petition calling for the implementation of a standard sexual assault reporting model incorporating the rule of law, penalties for perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, and the services of a full-time counsellor specialising in sexual harassment and assault. Heidi La Paglia, an advocate for the It’s Time for Action campaign, claims the campaign is important because, “despite the university responding to this issue in the sense that they’ve been publicly saying it’s never okay, we’ve seen very little in the way of actual concrete action to improve support for students on campus. That’s what we’re calling for.”

Clark Cooley, President of the Tasmanian University Union (TUU), also believes that improving support for students on campus and reducing the stigma surrounding sexual harassment and assault is an important issue. “It is important to have a unified approach,” Cooley says, “one incidence [of sexual assault or harassment] is too much. No matter where you sit, it’s never okay.”

#NeverOK is the name of the student-led campaign that Cooley and his executive have helped to roll out across UTas campuses. #NeverOK aims to raise awareness of sexual assault and harassment, to develop strategies to help tackle the issue, and to work with universities to change the culture that leads to sexual assault and harassment. Some initiatives already rolled out as part of the#NeverOK campaign include a new centralised reporting system — MySafety. This system can be accessed via the UTas website and is an example of students bringing about the change that is needed. The AHRC survey “Change the Course” has only served to garner more recognition and support for student-led campaigns such as#NeverOK and It’s Time for Action.

If you wish to sign the petition unveiled as a part of the It’s Time for Action campaign you can do so here: https://www.megaphone.org.au/petitions/it-s-time-for-action-demand-action-on-sexual-assault-at-utas

More information on the#NeverOK campaign can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/NeverOKAustralia/

If this article brings up any issues for you, contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit 1800respect.org.au. They are the national sexual assault and domestic family violence counseling service.

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