Universities appear to have taken inappropriate and unreasonable responses to reports of rape, writes Michelle James, a Principal in Abuse Law at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers.
There’s much to digest in this week’s report into sexual assault and abuse at Australia’s universities, but surely one of the key revelations is the apparent failure of the universities to act on what they already knew was happening to so many of their students.
Earlier this year, the advocacy group ‘End Rape on Campus Australia’ made a submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission in which it referred to over 145 reports of rape during the past five years. However, it claims this only lead to the relevant universities expelling 6 students, while other ‘punishments’ included a $55 fine, 8 hours community service and the requirement to write a letter of apology.
No reasonable person could possibly argue these are appropriate or reasonable responses by any institution to rape. But the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report which details the magnitude of sexual assault and harassment of Australian university students has demonstrated these are not likely to be isolated examples.
The Commission’s survey found the greatest percentage of sexual assaults of women students occurred at a residential college. However, the same research also found these young women were greatly frustrated by their college’s lack of response to the assault, with some victims even expected to continue living at the college with the perpetrator.
Other results are equally as damning. Roughly 6000 students or over 20% of those surveyed said they were sexually harassed in a university setting last year – but close to none of them (94%) made a formal report or complaint to their university.
Such shocking insights pose many questions for universities and other organisations about the role they must play in addressing and combating assaults and abuse. The Australian Human Rights Commission has shone a welcome and long overdue light into the dark corners of some of Australia’s most revered institutions.
While much will be made of the damaging impact the report will have on the reputation of our university sector – Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in 2015 the education sector was a major service export with income of $19.2 billion – we cannot miss the broader and more critical point from these findings: that we still have a long way to go in Australia when it comes to acknowledging and responding to sexual assault and abuse.
For many there is a romantic aspiration to an education at an elite and historic university in the Oxbridge tradition. Unfortunately, as this report shows, leadership within our universities is also historic, failing to reflect contemporary standards critical to guarding against assaults of this nature. The report details sickening examples of hazing sexual assaults dressed up as ‘college traditions’. This and other recent scandals, make it clear that governance within our universities is actively facilitating such practices by turning a blind eye.
As the report recommends, what is needed are improved standards in governance, and changing attitudes to sexual assault at the very highest levels in universities. Cultural change will not occur without a change in tone at the top.
The numbers of assaults and harassment revealed in the report also raise broader questions about whether such incidents should be considered institutionalised sexual abuse and treated as such, particularly in instances where the abuse was known and widespread, action was not taken, and incidents were covered up.
Regardless, what is patently obvious from this week’s report, as well as from the Royal Commission and the daily instances of workplace or domestic abuse, is that we still have a long way to go in acknowledging and appropriately responding to sexual assaults and abuse in Australia.
It is time for all institutions and organisations to face up to the reality of sexual abuse and assault, and to commit to swift action and support for survivors – to ensure that they know their rights, that they are supported and significantly, to help lessen the scourge of sexual abuse for future generations of Australians.
And as the Royal Commission has also sadly shown, we would be naïve if we were to believe that such abuse is historical, institutional or only affecting children.
The facts are that sexual abuse is still occurring today across many facets of Australian society – and as the Human Rights Commission’s report shows, those in positions of power are often too slow to act, or worse still, complicit in covering up incidents.
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