The Status of Women at the University of Birmingham

This is a speech I gave at the Birmingham University and College Union branch event about gender and governance at this university on March 10th. You can find their report here.

First of all, I will focus on representation and attainment. As this report demonstrates, the percentage of women in the highest academic levels at the University of Birmingham is incredibly low, notably due to the lack of women being appointed or nominated to the categories which aren’t elected. In terms of visibility alone, University management positions appear extremely exclusive and barred from women – this is compounded further by ethnicity.

It reflects down, into very low percentages of female senior academics, a clear disparity in numbers of female lecturers, and a flip in the gender balance for postgraduate students (45% from 55%). To draw from my own experience, only two of 13 lecturers in my two years at University were women, and that’s in the Politics Department.

This sends an implicit message to all of us women studying at an undergraduate level: it’s still a male-dominated field, and the glass ceiling is still very much intact. It has a strong impact on our ability to see ourselves pursuing these careers or even further education: especially for many, the further gap for women of colour. It makes the curriculum inherently exclusive, with a lack of focus on diverse issues or relevant examples, it reinforces stereotypes, it impacts on women’s confidence to speak out in learning environments, leading them in turn to lower levels of attainment, and leaving them less likely to pursue academia.

Hence my second argument: that the current hyper-masculinity of the governance of our university affects the culture and management, and it won’t be fixed merely by changing numbers.

It means that the priorities are different. Having no female Pro-Vice-Chancellors, only 17% of University Council, 19% of Senate and 15% of University Executive Board being women, there is little inclination to cater to the needs of different groups or facilitate the learning of people facing structural barriers to education. There is little in terms of support for students taking maternity leave, or who have caring responsibilities traditionally undertaken by women. The provisions to aid students with mental health issues inside departments is relatively poor, and far from uniform across campus – the provisions for survivors of sexual harassment and assault are far worse. These are gendered issues, and a lack of representation limits the priorities, knowledge and attention of those making the highest level decisions.

Senior management decided that this year would be the ‘Year of Equality’, and when pushed about what this meant when I spoke to him at Fresher’s Fair in September, the Vice-Chancellor was unable to provide more of an explanation than “we’ll be thinking very hard about how to promote equality in employment”. Now first of all, this reinforced my belief that the so-called ‘Year of Equality’ is merely a marketing ploy, an attempt to convince people the University isn’t as rubbish at equal opportunities as UCU’s research suggests, but it also struck me that once again, management have neglected to mention or pay any interest to students.

Learning environments very much have an impact on the quality of education a person can receive or engage in. This University promotes a hyper-masculine, competitive, managerial environment, which detaches students from the content and the academics, making them consumers instead of intelligent people here to learn. This explains and reinforces the success of those who embody the typically and culturally masculine traits, and limits any scope for diversity, creativity or community.

The fact that the University Executive Board’s ‘Champion of Equality’ is a white man (I will make no assumptions about sexuality, gender identity or disability) shows us how much they lack diversity, on top of how much contempt they show for marginalised and minority groups. Equality can’t be imposed from the top by an all-white, majority-male board: it needs to be inclusive, and needs to empower those from the marginalised groups to affect change. The report shows that the areas in which women are least present are those which require appointment, meaning that the men in positions of power are nominating and selecting other men to move up in the hierarchy, or limiting the ability for women to apply through advertising internally.

This is cultural, and it won’t be changed by tokenistic labels, but through actual engagement with and empowerment of the people facing the barriers, including students.

Abuse on campus

I am extremely disappointed with the Guild of Students as an institution and its unwillingness to support and defend students who are being targeted by the University of Birmingham. I care immensely that this students’ union, which I have been up until now proud to be a part of, is failing its students and its entire purpose so abysmally.

But I understand why this is. I understand it because I have seen it before, experienced it before. I understand now that this is what is pushing me so strongly in wanting the Guild to act. I see the University exerting coercive and unnecessary power over the Guild of Students, its sabbatical officers and its management, as an exercise in utter control. This is abuse. And I see that abusive relationship becoming more and more dangerous, as we get to a place where the University can suspend students without trial or the right to appeal and still the union stays quiet.

Four years after it ended, I recognised that I had been in an abusive relationship, and I am extremely scared of being in such a disempowering position ever again. And I will fight as hard as I can to prevent that situation from arising.

The power dynamic used by a dominant and abusive partner is akin to that used by the University over the Guild, through the amount of control, influence and pressure one institution can place on the other. I understand how subtle this power can be, and how difficult it is to challenge even once it has been recognised. I know that it’s based in lots of things, from comments to budget restrictions, a block grant which stays still and token ‘wins’ for students. Abuse is often manifested through financial impositions, through occasional positive acts, rewards or gifts which make you doubt the malevolence, through constant contact or surveillance of where you are, what you’re doing, who you’re with (cf University position on the Trustee Board, Guild Council motions ratified by the University Executive Board) and through day to day undermining of self-confidence and ability to act independently. This is what the University and Guild management are doing, and have been doing to the Guild for years and years.

It takes a lot of strength and determination to withdraw support in an abusive relationship. It has negative consequences, leaving a vacuum, requiring independence, creating confrontation and possibly more danger for the survivor once it has been left. Which is why the entire institution, officers and students need to come together and make that step unified, strong and publicly. We need to break free of the manipulation and control so that we can fulfil our purpose in representing the interests of students to the University, not hindering them from within or from fear of conflict.

As a liberation officer, I feel especially strongly that the struggles of marginalised and under-represented groups for equality and empowerment are not only hindered but prohibited by the Guild’s disempowerment. What chance do our struggles have if the Guild is in a place where it is unable and unwilling to challenge the University on the mistreatment of students? No matter how much it professes to oppose cuts and support the Living Wage, the Guild is fundamentally unable to campaign on these issues or show any opposition to the University management and their plans.

I have personal experience of abuse as well as domestic violence training, and these push me to want to help the Guild and the sabbatical officers to be strong and break free from this situation, so that it can become a union capable of acting and affecting positive change for its members. Taking a strong and public stance against the suspensions and the way these students are being treated is the first step. It is time for us to take this step, and to re-empower ourselves and our students.

 

If you would like to know more about abuse in relationships, or discuss/explore your experiences with others who have been through similar ordeals, the Women’s Association and Women’s Aid are holding workshops through the week from 10th-16th February open to people of all genders, and support groups on February 19th – 10.30-12.30pm, February 24th – 12-2pm, and March 5th – 12-2pm. Also feel free to get in touch with me at wo@guild.bham.ac.uk or BhamGuild Wo on Facebook (all communications are confidential).

Consent Week

Trigger Warning – discussion of abuse, violence, assault

We have some exciting things coming up this term, including our first Consent Week, organised for the 10th-16th of February, and of course International Women’s Day, which is March 8th.

‘Consent’ has been one of the main focusses of our Association this year so far, as we have been trying to raise awareness and promote the importance of consent in sexual activity, both within and without of relationships, to address the problematic culture where the 1 in 7 women students sexually assaulted during their time at University go unnoticed, and the everyday harassment and sexism faced by women students goes unchallenged. Of course this encompasses everything from unwanted groping on a night out to abusive relationships to domestic violence and assault – all of which are present on and around our campus. We want to use this week to get the word out about these things, spread ideas about consent, and give people fora to discuss them, learn about them, and get support relating to them.

In case you missed it, here’s the Women’s Association’s practical guide to consent:

“Consent is mandatory. 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and 1 in 7 women students during their time at university. And before we start, a few things need to be made clear: being sexually assaulted or raped is not something you can “ask for”, “enjoy”, “lead someone on to” or “deserve”. Our society seems to endorse rape culture, the collection of attitudes and reactions that protect and even to try justify the rapist rather than their victim. You’ll probably think that’s an exaggeration, no one seriously condones rape. But in fact, the very questions and comments on people’s lips illustrate the ingrained victim-blaming culture which is so harmful to survivors and rape prevention.

For example, commenting on the clothing, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity of the person who was raped shows that we subconsciously think that person could have prevented their rape, or that they somehow encouraged it. The lack of focus on or investigation into the rapist’s background, past, manipulative tendencies, demonstrates a societal willingness to understand, to accept such actions: “well, she was flirting all night so no wonder he couldn’t help himself” for instance, even though the action in itself goes against all moral value, our culture makes the victim responsible for their own rape. But culture can change, if each individual educates themselves on the issue, respects their body and others’, challenges victim-blaming and creates a consent culture around them, we have a chance of making sexual violence a thing of the past.

So keep that in mind, if you’re hoping to have sex tonight, make sure your partner consents, and if not, respect their decision and their body!”

Throughout Consent Week, we will be putting on different workshops (with Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid) about recognising abusive relationships, on harassment and stalking, and on consent, as well as support groups on those issues. We’re looking into having some sort of separate Abuse/Assault Survivor speak-out event on top of that where people can write their experiences down and share them around anonymously. At the moment there is no real structure for survivors to talk about what they’ve lived through with others or even know where to turn for help or support on campus, and I think it’s really important to deal with these issues and give people a space to explore them and meet others who are or have been in similar circumstances. At the moment I am looking into the possibilities of setting up regular/long-term support groups for survivors on campus; no promises but I’ll keep you posted!

We also have a film-viewing and round table discussion of ‘Miss Representation’ planned, which is a film about the way in which women are portrayed and often objectified in the media – the aim being to explore the cultural aspects behind objectification and gender roles because they feed in to and create gendered violence. A couple more of our events are awaiting confirmation – such as a black women’s caucus – but as soon as we have that all sorted posters will be out so don’t miss them.

Look out for our ‘This is Abuse’ posters, stalls and white ‘Say NO To Violence Against Women’ ribbons during that week and in the run up to IWD!

consentweek

If you’d like to be involved at all in the organisation or any of the events, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us by email at wo@guild.bham.ac.uk/womens@guild.bham.ac.uk or come and see us at tea and coffee on Tuesdays.

EDIT: The expression ‘Consent is Hot, Assault is Not’ was removed from the article as a point was raised by a member of the Association as trivialising consent, which is definitely not what this campaign aims to do. Sign ups are open at http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/consent-week-workshops-tickets-10295761901!

Why I support the Occupation

Note: These are my personal opinions about the occupation of Senate Chambers by the activist group Defend Education Birmingham. For their statement, updates and all the information, see their website defendeducationbrum.org.

One of the main objections people seem to have to direct action such as this occupation of the Senate Chambers is that it closes down communication, that we’d be far better off trying to talk to management about these issues rather than shutting them down: I’d like to address this point because it is one I find very important.

I personally strongly believe in communication and dialogue. About a year ago, I ran to be first year student representative for Senate because I believe that representing the voices and interests of students in this decision-making body is essential, and that students need to be a key focus in discussions about educational policy. When I first received my papers, (only 3 working days before the actual Senate meeting) and was invited to first a briefing with Guild management, then with the Vice-Chancellor, I was confused. Confused about why we had only been given a ridiculously short amount of time to read through quite long and complex documents, about why we were being told by two different senior managers what the ‘key issues’ were and why our objections to them were supposedly unrealistic, about why there was so little content actually concerned with the quality of education students receive. After turning up to Senate and raising issues along with my fellow student representatives which were swept aside by waffle and long explanations about ‘how the world really works’, on top of the absence of vote or input into the approval process, I was extremely disappointed and disillusioned to realise that we, as students, in fact have very little power, say or even consideration in the decisions made by the University which affect them.

As a non-sabbatical officer at the Guild of Students – a position for which I ran with the same intentions, aiming to work within and improve the system I see – I am even more acutely aware of the power structures and managerial emphasis at this University that push students to the background, viewing them merely as numbers and fee-payers, rather than intelligent people here to learn, here for an education, people who have views worth listening to. Many senior managers are quite unaware even of what the Guild do, the campaigns and organisation we run as a students’ union, which speaks for itself. No matter how much I would like to simply ask the University to take us into account, to consider for example the impact of over-recruitment on class sizes, quality of education, housing capacity and the mental health of those forced to find their own accommodation at late notice, raising this point in Senate or other University meetings does nothing, it has no impact, it is dismissed as an unimportant repercussion of an otherwise excellent phenomenon.

This is why I believe in direct action. This is why I support students making themselves physically present and noticed, causing a real nuisance to the University management. It’s to make them realise we’re here, we’re people, we have issues to raise and they need to be heard. It is not a question of imposing our demands, but of being taken seriously and bringing both sides to the table to discuss them in a way where we won’t simply be dismissed as young idealistic students or ignored entirely. Defend Education is not attempting to shut down communication: many of its members work extremely hard in meetings with the University and at departmental levels to negotiate for elements of these demands and change the perception and exclusion of students. But it’s not enough, and it doesn’t work alone. We need direct action to show the University that students will not be walked all over, we will not simply accept the quality of our education decreasing, we want input into our institution and you should hear us!

Whose campus

Reclaim the Night

Yesterday (26th October) the Women’s Association here at Birmingham took 35 women down to London for the Reclaim the Night March, to condemn sexual, domestic and gendered violence, and call for safe streets!

It was an amazing experience, so much solidarity to everyone there and all the women who have been affected by any form of harassment, abuse, violence, who have ever felt unsafe walking alone at night, or who have ever been blamed for what happened to them.

Have a read of Natasha’s write up of the event on the WA blog, we’ll be discussing the event and the issues it was about at tea and coffee on Monday!

POWER TO THE WOMEN.

Reclaim the Night

A bit about Lad Culture

Thanks to everyone who came to tea and coffee today, it was great to see so many of you back again and lots of lovely new faces!

There were many insightful conversations about lad culture, in the workplace, at uni and all the time really, it was good to hear people’s views, although not so good to hear about all of the experiences … People seemed mostly to be saying that we should do more to raise awareness about the issue and empower people to call out offensive behaviours, because quite often those who are doing it don’t realise how awful their attitudes or comments are.

I definitely believe that we should be actively trying to open people’s eyes to the reasons why certain things can’t be dismissed merely as ‘banter’ or light hearted humour, by people of any gender, race or sexuality. Simple things, like groping someone on a night out: first of all, telling men but also women that it’s not acceptable or in any way a compliment to touch someone inappropriately as they go past, and explaining how dehumanising that action is, to be viewed merely for your body or sexual appeal, and how that’s something that women do face regularly, is really important and could encourage that person to quit that particular behaviour. That’s also a much easier discussion to have with your friends than turning around in a club and calling out someone who’s drunk and possibly at this point doesn’t care, which can also be quite intimidating and unpleasant. And it’s especially good if that person you’ve convinced goes on to tell their friends that it’s just not cool to treat women as objects.

In terms of actual things the Women’s Association or the Guild can do about it, a few ideas came up: so far this year we have made handbooks and myth buster leaflets (check them out in the ‘Handbook’ tab of this blog) with a lot of information about the association, the need for it and also various elements of culture which can be quite degrading or difficult for women especially. These have been pretty popular, and I’m definitely going to try and get the Guild to fund them being printed off properly for future events, but I think we need to be keeping the ideas flowing, publicising these issues more and better.

I’m very glad we’ve brought in themes for the weekly meetings, I think that it’ll allow us to have good discussions on a variety of subjects, and also allow us to get a better picture of what women students are experiencing outside of our personal circles. Shout out to the committee for sorting that!

The Zero Tolerance Policy is pretty cool too, I’m really glad we have it and I’d really like to take up an idea that was mentioned today in creating posters that explain exactly what the ZTP is and how it applies, to publicise around the Guild and social media and make it clear what exactly constitutes harassment or offensive behaviour and why it won’t be tolerated at the Guild. This is something which has been mentioned quite consistently: we need to do more to reach out to students and show them what we’re actually doing, and how it affects them.

We still have lots of consent stickers and posters that we could put up in places around campus, which will help broaden our reach to those who don’t necessarily interact with the Guild much. With something like this which is a matter of culture, the best thing we can do is get as many people as possible thinking about issues of consent and respect in all situations. Whether or not they agree comes later, but simply sparking the debate – which in a way I’m glad the ‘Blurred Lines’ ban has done – could be a very useful and constructive step to making life a bit safer and nicer for women students and workers.

As ever, please get in contact with any questions, concerns or projects at wo@guild.bham.ac.uk!

Self-defence, Zero Tolerance, and some other things …

I’ve tried my best not to be triggering, but just as a warning the second paragraph is about victim-blaming and assault in relation to self-defence.

First of all, some exciting news: we now have free self-defence classes for women! This term, they’ve been organised as 1h our taster sessions for up to 250 people, which is pretty awesome ‘cause it will allow for a large number of women to have at least basic training in personal safety, fear management and psychology of self-defence. On top of that, if we manage to fill the majority of the spaces – I’m pretty confident we will – and people find them useful, we should be able to push for longer-term courses, allowing us to pick up more extensive techniques and understanding of self-defence. Big shout out to the Community Wardens (@ILoveSellyOak) for all their hard work in getting this off the ground and for financing the project!

SelfDefencePoster'

I am however very much aware that although these classes are amazing, they are not in themselves a solution to violence against women or assault. The difficulty in promoting self-defence so strongly is that we have to be careful not to shift responsibility onto women to protect themselves from any assailant that might be out there, in turn reinforcing the victim-blaming culture so harmful to survivors. The classes are part of an effort to help people to deal with the reality of what can and does happen, especially to women who can be identifiable targets, learning concrete tools that can help with confidence and understanding situations.

But they are part of a wider campaign, a campaign to move away from lumping responsibility onto women to make sure they aren’t abused or assaulted, as well as from viewing other people merely as sexualised objects. A campaign which promotes consent and respect, within relationships and without, and creates a safe space for students at our University.

As part of that, this week the Guild is implementing its extensive Zero Tolerance policy which applies to all types of discriminatory and oppressive behaviour, from sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism to ageism and gender-definition-based harassment. Staff in the Guild’s venues have been trained in how to respond to complaints of harassment – constituted when you ask someone to stop a behaviour which makes you uncomfortable or is oppressive, and they continue with full knowledge of your request –, and students are put through member disciplinary for sexism (and the other forms mentioned) the same as for violent behaviour.

I think this is really important because it should raise people’s awareness about these issues and hopefully hammer home the seriousness and unacceptable nature of sexual harassment in a place where it is unfortunately commonplace to get groped on a night out, if not pressured into sex because the way you’re dressed or you flirted with someone or them buying you a drink is interpreted as entitlement.

We’ve got some cool booklets, leaflets and stickers that tell you more about this and also about culture and the things we can do to change it: come along and meet us at Fresher’s Fair Thursday and Friday, or if you’re a self-defining woman please come and have tea and coffee with us Mondays at 5pm in Beorma Bar (upstairs in the Guild). I’ll also try and put digital versions up on this blog and the Women’s Association blog, but you should keep an eye out for the Guild’s Liberation Association online booklet which has the upshot of also telling you about the LGBTQ association, BEMA and DAMSA. Make sure to do some twitter following so you’re up to date on all the super events we have planned this term!

You can sign up for the self-defence classes at personalsafetyguild.eventbrite.co.uk.

Contact me at wo@guild.bham.ac.uk, @Guild_WO or via my Facebook profile BhamGuild Wo if you have any questions or ideas!

Introduction & projects

Hi, I’m Mae Rohani, and I’ll be your Women’s Officer this year at the Guild. My role is to represent women in the students union, and campaign on issues that revolve around gender inequality, including discrimination, harassment, violence and under-representation, all of which happen in the everyday lives of women students. I aim to use this blog to keep you updated on my campaigns and projects here at the Guild, but also to post about various themes and topics that fall under my remit.

So far, I’ve been working with the Women’s Association and the VP Welfare to create a welcome booklet for women students starting university in September. The idea of these is to have readily available information and advice so as to give women the tools to deal with any discrimination, violence or gender related problems, to raise awareness about the inequalities that remain in our society and how to deal with them. As well as this, it aims to help change mentalities, encouraging students to stand up against sexism and create a culture which rejects oppression and gender-based discrimination (also promoting the struggles of our fellow liberation movements), and liberates women and men from the many social pressures they face daily to behave, act, dress in certain ways. Once completed, a digital version of the booklet should be available on this blog.

Just to give an idea, these are some illustrations of the inequality that still exists in society today:
- A pay gap of 18.6% between men and women with the same qualifications doing the same job,
- An extremely low number of women in senior management or professorial positions,
- 1 in 7 women experiencing sexual assault whilst at university,
- 1.2 million women suffering domestic abuse in the last year,
- Overtly sexualised images in the media and advertising predominantly featuring women,
- A culture of silence surrounding harassment, rape apology, victim-blaming,
- Women experiencing harassment, unwanted physical contact, catcalling on a daily basis.

As well as this, I’m helping to put together a digital booklet which groups descriptions and all relevant contact details for the Guild’s liberation associations, to distribute to new and current students online, encouraging students to get involved with their relevant associations.

During the first term (at least), there will be women’s weekly tea and coffee discussion sessions, on Mondays from 5-6.30 pm in Beorma Bar, open to all self-defining women, in order to create a welcoming and safe space for discussion on issues that affect women at our university and in wider society. The first meeting will be on Monday 30th October. I will also be holding a weekly drop-in office hour, to be determined at the start of term, where any student can drop in to talk about any issues, questions or ideas they have relating to gender and the promotion of equality.

I am looking to run various events and campaigns throughout the year which raise awareness about gender related issues – in particular lad culture, positive body image, gender pay gap, consent culture (as opposed to rape culture). More about those as they develop.

The VP Democracy and Resources, the WA committee and I have been working in conjunction with the Community Wardens scheme to set up regular women’s self-defence classes at the Guild, specifically targeting instances of stalking, harassment and attacks by unknown persons which are predominantly aimed at women. The classes – like the trial sessions which took place at the end of last year and which I attended– focus both on physical protection and defence and psychological preparation, allowing women to be fully equipped to deal with potential incidents, in turn giving us more confidence to go about our lives safely. Hopefully, a rise in trained students who are able and willing to defend themselves will have a positive impact on the community and safety in Selly Oak. Again, more info when it comes.

I have also been working with the Women’s Association, the other liberation associations and their officers to help the VPDR to look into the possibility of full-time liberation officers at the Guild. At the moment, the four liberation officers are non-sabbatical, meaning we’re volunteers, and have to juggle our projects with our degrees. It also means that we are a lot less present in the Guild, and have less input into decisions. There are still a large amount of structural and cultural oppression towards all liberation groups at this university and students’ union, and it would be immensely valuable to have full-time officers dedicated to creating a safe and equal space for students from all backgrounds. Let’s smash the kyriarchy*!

I am really looking forward to this year, and urge anyone who has queries, ideas or just anything they would like to discuss relating to my role to get in contact via email: wo@guild.bham.ac.uk.

 

*Kyriarchy is the interconnected set of structural oppressions, so instead of simply talking about patriarchy, the system in which women are institutionally discriminated against, we use the intersectional term which takes into account other forms of privilege, oppression, discrimination such as racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, economic injustice etc.

Update

Hello all,

First of all, apologies for not blogging as avidly as I am meant to.

I don’t have that long left as Women’s Officer, and I’m going to focusing on my essays and exams from now on but there are a few things that I hope to achieve with the Women’s Association and Cross-Liberation group.

These are ideas for Guild Council motions:

Last Guild Council of this year:

1. Women’s Open Places

Extending general Open Places to 12 position and make SIX of them women-only.

2. Liberation Autonomy

Changing the bye-laws so that Liberation Officers can only be held to account by their Associations, not Guild Council. This makes it both easier for Associations to remove their Officers, and harder for a Guild Council primarily non-Lib from removing them.

3. Mandating VPW / Liberation Officers to lobby the University for better welfare

Mandating the VPW and WO to work together and with the Women’s Association to lobby the University to ensure welfare and counselling can provide for victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, discrimination and bullying (all groups), abuse, violent relationships – and to so confidentially.

4. Sabb Officer

Mandate the President, VPDR and VPW to look into how other institutions use Equality/Diversity/Liberation Sabbatical Officers, how effective they are and whether their is a need for them at university of Birmingham. To report back to 1st Guild Council of next year. - Work with Liberation Officers (new and old) / Working groups with Associations.

1st Guild Council of next year:

1. Liberation Room

People have suggested perhaps we try and get a room for the Liberation Associations to share.

2. The Guild & Liberation Assocations

Considering the general perception of Lib groups in Guild Council, and the common misconception that we are mere student groups,  it makes sense to write a Guild belief distinguishing the two.

“The Guild believes that Liberation Associations have a role in the Guild of Students that extends far beyond that of the average student group, being political associations seeking equality, accessibility and empowerment for marginalised groups within the student population and society as a whole; disabled people, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and women. As such, they are fundamental to the Guild being a truly representative institution and becoming a safe place for all students”.

3. Formalising the Cross-Liberation Group.

*****************************************************

* Equality and Access Sabbatical Position

Now this is going to take a lot of work and probably won’t be able to go through Guild Council for a while, but we need to be thinking about it and come to a decision as a large cross-Liberation group whether we want to change VPW position or make a new one. I personally think a different one would be a lot better, but we have to consider University / Guild money.

In addition, the Women’s Association are planning some really great events. Self-defence classes with Muay Thai, a Sex-Positive event and much more! Keep your eyes and ears open.

That’s all for now! :)

 

Censorship in the Guild

Today, a Women’s Officer candidate was asked – at the request of Guild Elections Committee – to remove some of her posters from around campus because they quoted statistics from the NUS Hidden Marks report about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment on campuses [1]. They are upsetting.

This decision came after complaints from a small number of students who felt that they were upsetting statements, reminding them (or potentially reminding victims) of bad experiences. As such, the candidate has chosen to remove them and not appeal the decision, because she never intended to offend anyone and this instance wasn’t worth the battle.

However, this note is being written to argue that this was a very poor decision made by elections committee for the following reasons:

1. It inhibits the ability of activists and campaigners to raise awareness about very important issues.
2. It sets a very dangerous precedent, which harms freedom of speech used for the best intentions.

1. It inhibits awareness raising.

The NUS Hidden Marks report is a study of over 2,000 female students in Universities in England and Wales. It reveals some shocking statistics, a selection of which I have outlined below:

  • 1 in 7 survey respondents have experienced some kind of verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institution. This includes groping, flashing, unwanted sexual comments.
  • 12% of respondents had been subject to stalking.
  • Over 1 in 10 had been a victim of serious physical violence.
  • 7% have been subject to serious sexual assault.
  • In the majority of cases in all incident categories the perpetrator was known to the victim.
  • 81% of victims of serious sexual assault knew their attacker.
  • 89% of stalkers were men.
  • 73% of the perpetrators of physical violence were men.
  • Students were the majority of perpetrators in most categories, except for ‘physical violence’ where just under half were students (48%).

This is shocking and upsetting – especially for those who may have been victim to harassment or assault (and statistics suggest there are many). However, sexual assault on campuses is too big an issue to silence. The statistics should be evidence enough that we should be shouting about this as loud as we can and trying our hardest to find the cause, change attitudes on campus and help the students who need it.

The report also revealed that of the students who were seriously sexually assaulted only 4%reported to their University and only 10% reported to the police. They gave the following reasons for not reporting it:

- ‘I didn’t think it was serious enough to report’: 45%
- ‘I didn’t think that what happened was a crime: 42%
- ‘I thought I could handle it myself’: 46%
- ‘I felt ashamed or embarrassed’: 50%
- ‘I thought I would be blamed for what happened’: 43%
- ‘I didn’t think I would feel comfortable talking to the police about it’: 33%
- ‘I didn’t want my parents/family to find out’: 33%
- ‘I didn’t think I would be believed’: 33%
- ‘I didn’t want my friends to find out’: 25%

Now, it is obvious that being seriously sexually assaulted will leave lasting scars on anyone, that will affect their everyday lives, their University work, their physical and mental health etc. If only 4% of students are informing their University, this means zero mitigations, zero consideration and zero help. If they aren’t reporting it to the police it means zero justice.

If as an institution we are committed to helping students and providing a safe campus, raising awareness about the issues at hand should be a no.1 priority. Sending out the message that these students are not alone and that they should not be ashamed or embarrassed, and that it is the fault of the perpetrator not the victim are all part and parcel of ensuring that sexual assault and harassment are taken seriously on this campus.

With so few students reporting these issues, the University is able to get away with welfare services that focus on exam stress, family bereavement and stopping smoking [2] – leaving serious issues like sexual harassment, assault and rape to be handled alone.

By silencing this issue we are perpetuating a myth that campuses are safe and that sexual assault is uncommon. We are hiding and downplaying a prevalent issue, making these students feel isolated, embarrassed and unwilling to ask for help. Over 40% of victims of ‘serious sexual assault’ had told nobody: not friends, family, welfare tutors - nobody.  

If we want to create a safe space, where students are encouraged to show self-awareness and respect to female students then publicly raising awareness about and condemning sexual harassment, assault and rape is a necessary first step.

In short, it is upsetting for a reason.

By its very nature, sexual assault is upsetting. 

2. It sets a dangerous precedent.

I think it is fairly obvious that raising awareness may involve (in the majority of cases) sharing upsetting information.

In this instance it was a candidate running for a Guild position.

Next time it could be a focused campaign about a major contravention of human rights somewhere in the world.

It could be a campaign raising awareness about the institutionalised oppression or persecution of a group of people in this country or elsewhere.

It could be a campaign informing students of an environmental catastrophe that had resulted in a very high death toll, soaring cancer rates and the destruction of important ecosystems.

It could be a boycott campaign raising awareness about how products sold on campus are made by workers in sub-human conditions.

The possibilities are endless.

I am worried that if our Guild is willing to apply this kind of censorship because it is upsetting, then there is little stopping similar censorship handcuffing Guild Officers, student groups, student activists from making a real difference on their campus.

The world is an upsetting place, and lots of bad things happen. We will never change anything if we silence those few passionate individuals who care enough to face the upsetting facts head on.

I implore the Guild to stop censoring its members.

I see campaigning around sexual assault and harassment on campus as central to the role of Women’s Officer. If our WO candidates aren’t allowed to raise awareness in their campaign, what chance do we have of them campaigning during their time in office? There is a big problem on our campuses, revealed by this NUS report. Its time we faced it and tried to solve it rather than burying our heads in the sand in the guise of ensuring a minority of students are not upset.

Safe space does not mean hiding widespread sexism and violence.

What the heck were Elections Committee thinking?

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[1] NUS Hidden Marks Report can be found here:

http://www.nus.org.uk/Global/NUS_hidden_marks_report_2nd_edition_web.pdf

[2] http://www.as.bham.ac.uk/studentlife/counselling/help.shtml