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'Women’s needs are not even part of the conversation': gender-based violence on campus

'Women’s needs are not even part of the conversation': gender-based violence on campus

“We need to stop the excessive focus on getting women to report.”

This is the controversial finding of university sexual and gender-based violence researcher Poppy Gerrard-Abbott.

“There is no point telling women to report if they are not willing to listen to reports, take them seriously and process them,” she explains. 

“Universities are giving an impression that they have an open door full of listening ears for women to report and in reality, they have substandard training, policies, procedures and support provisions that can not follow through on these promises.

“With the police, it’s to get a conviction and possibly put into jail or on a restraining order. Universities don’t have those sorts of judicial powers. The evidence so far, anecdotally and in formal academic research, is telling us that there is no reward for reporting.”

I meet Gerrard-Abbott on a rainy afternoon at a busy underground Edinburgh café while university staff are on strike over their pensions, pay and working conditions.

She is a survivor of gender-based violence herself. When Gerrard-Abbott was an undergraduate at the University of Essex, she was stalked and harassed by a male postgraduate student while she was the president of the politics society.

“He would say very distressing, personal, sexist things to me. It ruined my life to the point that I was having serious psychological and psychiatric issues and disturbances, like having dreams that he would murder me at night,” she says.

She went through both reporting procedures at the university and within the politics society “and then, after weeks and weeks of this kind of circus of nothingness, I was sat down and told that there was nothing they could do and that I wasn’t allowed to restrict his access to the society that I ran.”

“I was so exhausted and degraded and tired and fed up that I just dropped the complaint and that man is now a PhD at that university,” she says. “I’m not saying this is like some sort of isolated incident. This is happening everywhere, to every woman I know that has ever been in some sort of political public position – harassment, stalking, abuse, cyber stalking.”

This experience, as well as that of her friends, led to Gerrard-Abbott’s decision to begin a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, exploring “why, despite ten years of reform and campaigns and new policies, we are seeing no change on the ground in terms of levels of violence towards women on university campuses.”

So, what have Scottish universities been doing to address the issue of gender-based violence (GBV) on campus?

In 2014, the Scottish Government launched its Equally Safe strategy, with a delivery plan released in 2017. That plan contains 118 different actions, including broad goals that Scottish society should “embrace equality and mutual respect and rejects all forms of violence against women and girls”.

The Equally Safe in Higher Education Toolkit was launched in 2018, followed by a working group to support its adaptation and identify issues and devise plans to raise awareness on the issue.

The Fearless Edinburgh partnership, which includes the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, was created to bring universities together with Police Scotland, the NHS and Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre to help share resources to deliver joint training, development and good practice for handling sexual harassment and assault on campus.

Holyrood attended one such training at Heriot-Watt, on how bystanders can prevent sexual violence in university settings, delivered by ex-police officer Graham Goulden.

Inside a room at the back of the student’s union, a semi-circle of chairs awaited me and about 20 others – a mixture of staff and students. Many of the students were leaders of student societies and clubs, from civil engineering to the language society.

“My passion is about bringing the bystander into the conversation,” Goulden tells the room. “Imagine a world where we all felt comfortable intervening in situations involving friends or peer groups? We need to help individuals like yourselves move from the passive of standing by to actually doing something.”

At one point, Goulden asks us to separate according to our answer to the following question: “Does your club or society at Heriot-Watt have a role in addressing gender-based violence?” Six people move to the ‘unsure’ section. They say they were not explicitly told by the university that it was their responsibility to address these issues.

On another occasion, we are asked to raise our hands if “you think you would know what to do if someone comes to you and is a victim of gender-based violence?” No hands are raised.

While the training highlighted some gaps in knowledge, it also addressed these gaps by giving everyone a ‘toolkit’ of strategies on how to address difficult situations as a bystander, a friend, or a colleague.

“Universities are not the problem in themselves, they are within a society where sexual violence is remains an issue,” Goulden tells Holyrood after the training.

“They are inheriting groups of people coming in … with different cultural ideas, understanding of patriarchy and gender roles in society.

“I think the challenge for universities is to find ways to talk about this stuff, in a way that doesn’t demonise certain sections of the university.”

In 2019, Heriot-Watt was thrust into the media after a former professor, Kevin O’Gorman, was convicted of sexually assaulting seven young male students and ordered to carry out 240 hours of community work. The university’s own investigations led to the criminal inquiry.

Heriot-Watt equality and diversity partner Sharan Virdee tells Holyrood the institution has implemented a “victim-led” approach to all training and support.

“Every bit of work that we do is very much about being victim led, that’s the ethos of our Fearless Edinburgh work. People’s first reaction when they hear something awful has happened to somebody is to immediately want to solve it or look after the person in the way that they know best how to do rather than listening to what that person really wants,” she explains.

“Pointing out options for people and so forth is really important, but it has to be what that person wants to do.”

She says the bystander training allowed clubs, societies and staff to come together to learn more about how to address incidents of sexual harassment and assault on campus.

“Part of the reason for the training was to get all of the societies around the table to raise their consciousness and be aware that they have a part to play in terms of peer stuff but not necessarily in providing that first line of support,” Virdee says.

“Immediately after the sessions, we contacted everybody and gave them all of the referral procedures that we have – how you report, where you report to and how you support somebody to do that, should they want to.”

Looking ahead, Virdee would like to see more open conversations about these issues. “I’d like to see less fear about talking about these things. We talk about victims and perpetrators in a way that it puts people on the opposite sides of things, but actually we’re all part of making incidents not happen.”

At the University of Edinburgh, two new roles have recently been created – sexual violence and harassment liaison manager and officer – to form a new support service as part of a “review and refresh” of the university’s approach to tackling sexual and gender-based violence.

“This new, sector-leading team will become the single point of contact for survivors of sexual violence and GBV,” the university’s director of wellbeing, Andy Shanks, tells Holyrood.

“Coinciding with this work, we are also setting up the ‘report and support’ digital reporting system for the university and a platform to promote all support services for survivors of sexual violence.”

Asked for his thoughts on whether universities should encourage reporting of these incidents at all, Shanks says: “A robust and fully accessible reporting process gives us the ability to support and offer specialist advice and support to survivors, whether they seek to report the incident to the university/police or not.”

Shanks says he would like to see more men involved in the conversation to “make them more aware of the issues around gender-based violence and how we as a community can prevent it”.

“We also need to be mindful that GBV can be experienced by both women and men. We’d like to encourage men to seek support and advice if they are a survivor of sexual violence, domestic abuse or harassment,” he adds.

Bringing men into the discussion is a big motivator for Goulden’s training.

“Men are critical here,” he says.

“It’s not men are the problem, but men are the solution to these issues. We’ve got to help men with the narrative on how they can ‘call in’ their friends, rather than ‘calling out’ their friends, or doing nothing.”

Gerrard-Abbott has found that men need to take on a greater role ending sexual violence, and that we need male leaders to “frame the eradication of gender-based violence as something that’s beneficial to men as well as women”.

“Because they also suffer with expectations that masculinity should be like hegemonic masculinity, they aren’t socialised with the kind of spectrum of emotional outlets that women are, so they can actually feel lost.

“There’s lots of different theoretical explanations for why men assault and why men rape, which is another thesis in itself, but they also suffer themselves as perpetrators and as victims of male violence.”

She says this needs to start with men at the top.

“There’s no point training the sports team to not harass people if you’ve got men right at the top and they set the culture for how an institution runs, and they’re just running in complete contradiction to each other. We want to get to a place where it’s seen as socially unacceptable to assault.”

Gerrard-Abbott is currently analysing anti-GBV policy initiatives at universities in Scotland, as well as the rest of the UK.

“What’s interesting about the Scottish context is, maybe because it’s smaller, but I think that it is easier to get heard and it is easier to have quick change and get a conference set up or a policy set up.

“There’s something to be said about being an activist in Scotland, change feels a bit more reachable and Holyrood, I think, is a bit more accessible than Westminster.”

Back to reporting, she says universities “invest a lot of resources into creating shiny buttons that present a veneer of change, rather than there being any sort of structural change”.

“The only thing that’s going to happen to you if you report is hundreds of hours of your time are going to go down the pan and you’re going to be continuously re-traumatised,” she says.

But she says universities cannot “do it on their own”. “There needs to be fundamental changes in schools. By the time they can walk, children already have an understanding of segregated gender roles and that feminine equates to weakness and lower social status.”

Gerrard-Abbott says her findings reveal “there’s a chronic lack of trust in policy from women”.

“Policy has failed women time and time again. Whilst I’m interested in how we could create policies that reflect survivors’ needs and experiences, I’m more interested in women having support and being protected, rather than the university acting as police, because I don’t think that they have the capabilities.”

She says universities need to be asking women what they want from these policies and processes.

“Women want to be safe. Women don’t want their perpetrators moved into the same block of accommodation that they’re in. They don’t want to be in the same classes as their perpetrator. They don’t want to enter these lengthy reporting processes and have their perpetrator, like, publicly hung.

“I already have some ideas about what the kind of conclusion will be with my work … which is that the reason why reforms are failing is because we’re not actually asking survivors or victims what they want from reporting processes.

“Women’s needs are not even part of the conversation.”

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