A student ombudsman will make students safer. Can we finally end rape on campus?

A student ombudsman will make students safer. Can we finally end rape on campus?

rape

Something big happened last week. It is important that the women who fought for the reform don’t go unnoticed so please let me name drop a few heroes of mine. It’s also important we talk about how this reform will make students safer and acknowledge that while there is more work to do, we can end rape on campus – for good.

Last week the Albanese Government announced that an independent National Student Ombudsman will be established to investigate student complaints and assist to resolve disputes with universities.

States and territory Ministers agreed to establish the Independent Ombudsman in a big win for students.

The functions of the Ombudsman will include, considering whether decisions and actions taken by providers are unreasonable, unjust, oppressive, discriminatory or otherwise wrong. It will also be able to respond to a complaint while a provider is still considering the issue if there are unreasonable delays, or the provider is acting unreasonably.  It will also be able to recommend a provider takes specific steps to resolve the complaint.

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Senator Nita Green

I’m so proud that the Senate inquiry into Consent Laws played a role in highlighting the inadequacy of the current system. When I moved for an inquiry on the floor of the Senate, I wanted to start a conversation about consent and how we speak about sexual assault, and we did just that.

But the work to establish an independent student ombudsman, and convince policy makers that one was needed, started a very long time ago by a group of activists who refused to give up. Their hard work has finally paid off. They need to be recognised.

Advocates like Sharna Bremner from End Rape on Campus who has been acting as a one-woman complaints handling system and helpfully kept student voices at the centre of reform discussions. Then there is Camille Schloeffel and Audrey Mims from the STOP Campaign and Renee Carr from Fair Agenda, Dr Allison Henry. Not to mention Saxon Mullins, Chanel Contos, Dr Rachael Burgin who all gave evidence at the inquiry.  And a special shout out to Abigail Gregorio from WA consent who spoken about her own experiences on campus. Brave and incredible women.

The Senate inquiry didn’t set out to target universities. However, at the hearings advocates and victim-survivors spoke passionately about the need for change in the sector and the way student were being re-traumatised by failing complaints systems. In fact, the Committee found approaches by certain Australian universities to complaints handling “utterly unacceptable”.

Given the evidence received throughout the inquiry, the Committee said it lacked confidence that the university sector (as a whole) would respond appropriately to the crisis without strong intervention. That is why the Committee recommended that the Government implement an independent taskforce with strong powers, to provide oversight of universities’ policies and practices to prevent and respond to sexual violence on campus and in residences.

When I moved to establish the inquiry in 2022, I hadn’t met many of the women who I would come to learn had been championing safety on campus for years and years. I said I just wanted to make women feel safe. The women just like my friends, who are my friends, who will one day be my daughter.

Minister Jason Clare needs to be recognised for his leadership, for listening and for pushing forward with this reform. Its significance can’t be underestimated, and I hope that its impact will be felt far beyond the life of this Parliament.

Will we be able to end rape on campus simply by creating a new way for complaints to be handled? Some people would naturally say no, that sexual assault happens in society so it will inevitably happen on our campuses. But I think that’s the wrong approach.

An Independent Student Ombudsman is a step in the right direction to make our campuses the safest places in society for young people. With more reform and structural change, we can, and we should be able to end rape on campus – for good. And when we do advocates like Sharna Bremner will be the reason why. 

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