Abortion Rights Student Training

Over the past few months I’ve had the pleasure of talking with representatives from a group called Abortion Rights, which is a national campaign to protect women’s rights to safe, legal abortions. This is such important work, as women deserve autonomy over their own bodies, and no law should prevent them from accessing medical procedures carried out by trained professionals. Abortions still happen regardless of the law, and even though pro-choice movements are often demonised for allowing abortions to be carried out, the alternative means women are often placed in much more difficult circumstances.

The importance of this campaign became clear to me when I, along with many members and allies of Women’s Association, attended a counter-protest with Abortion Rights in Birmingham a few months ago. There was a March for Life in the centre of Birmingham, so we went along with placards and banners and protested next to where they were holding their event. Not only did we have many members of the public walk up to us and congratulate us for our efforts, but we showed the pro-life marchers that there is resistance to their movement and we won’t keep quiet when women’s rights are being threatened.

Abortion Rights are teaming up with the NUS to hold a training afternoon in London on the 7th August, open to Sabbatical/Women’s Officers, or otherwise relevant representatives from all universities across the country. It is a great opportunity to learn about the sort of tactics used by pro-life activists on campuses, and how to deal with any pro-life/anti-abortion activity on or near campus. There will be two workshops running on how to win the argument against pro-life activists, and abortion media skills.

If you are interested, sign up here. Attendance is free but spaces are limited, so make sure to sign up before they run out. There is also a Facebook event if you need more information.

Hope to see some of you there!

Quick Introduction

Hi!,

For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Alex Binnie and I’m the new Women’s Officer at the Guild of Students. I saw that this blog was linked to my officer account on twitter, and I figured it would be worth rebooting it. I will try to post things occasionally on here to keep you all updated, though I can’t promise that I’ll be sticking to any sort of schedule!

If you don’t already, please follow my twitter and facebook accounts, I’ll be updating those much more frequently. If you need anything, either contact me on facebook or email me at wo@guild.bham.ac.uk.

Goodbye from Mae!

Getting ready to sign out of all of the Women’s Officer accounts and social media ….

I’ll let my successor introduce her/them-self when the time comes, but for the meantime please get in touch with the Women’s Association committee (womens@guild.bham.ac.uk) or another Guild officer with any questions or ideas!

If you haven’t already, make sure to follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WomensUoB and on Twitter @WomensUoB.

I look forward to working with the committee for another year of badass feminist organising, and wish all the best to the next Women’s Officer!!!

Update on Support Groups

Thank you everyone who sent in ideas and comments about the support groups, it was immensely useful in working towards creating support for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence!

At the moment, it looks like our initial plan will be to start off with a peer-support group run by the Guild Women’s Association (facilitated by students) which has no specific structure but is clearly a space where personal safety and confidentiality are utmost priorities, and the focus of discussion should be on the effects of the experiences and people’s everyday feelings rather than the circumstances of their particular situations. It should be possible in the long run to hold themed sessions to which we invite external people to discuss certain topics or systems of support, or run workshops similarly to Consent Week this year.

We will also make as much information about local organisations, on campus support, University structures such as extenuating circumstances procedure, and Student Support Services available at the session – as well as tea and coffee ;).

I am looking to pilot a session on domestic violence and a session on sexual assault over the summer, operating an open door basis (even if you’re graduating in July!). I will keep everyone posted on decisions made about gender inclusion, location, dates and so forth.

 

I am now away for a few weeks and will not be working on my officer role – if there are any urgent questions or communications, please get in touch with the Women’s Association at womens@guild.bham.ac.uk, with the incoming Women’s Officer Rachel Kenyon at  rnk265@bham.ac.uk, the Vice-President Welfare Jethro Lee at vpw@guild.bham.ac.uk, or my personal email rohanimae@gmail.com if necessary.

 

Trigger Warning: sexual assault, domestic abuse, violence, death, academia

In response to some of the comments made by those of you who got in touch about the support groups, I would like to use this space to clarify some terms and answer questions that were put forward.

First of all, concerning the use of the word ‘survivor’ to describe a person who has experienced sexual assault or domestic abuse; I understand why this could be interpreted as a negative description and why concerns were raised. However, it is a widely agreed expression which is used to reflect both the lasting psychological and physical impact of assault and abuse on someone, which often alters a lot of their experiences and requires a lot to surmount on a daily basis (rather than an impression that it is about not having been killed), and that as such it is an empowering word, suggesting active strength and perseverance in moving past an experience which broke down your autonomy and often self-worth: isn’t meant to define you but can quite easily do so.

Secondly, the Head of Wellbeing at Elms Road explained that part of the failure of the police and justice system surrounding sexual assault, is that receiving counselling from an organisation other than the police before or during a report and court case can be used to call into question the testimony of someone reporting and can invalidate legal action. This is why as practice counsellors will advise caution around their disclosure within a session if someone is looking to go to the police. They promised to raise the issue with the counselling team and ensure that all of the counsellors are up to date and aware of the subtleties of advice they give. Hopefully, the peer-support space will enable people to explore their ideas and feelings in a helpful context, though this does not replace the beneficial counselling that they could receive or the need for clarity surrounding counselling and police reporting.

Thirdly, the extenuating circumstances procedure can be one of the foci of the information available within the sessions and also a themed discussion at some point over the year (earlier rather than later). We will also look at making information widely available to students from the beginning of the year, through the Guild associations but also Elms Road will be looking to sign post more. This was raised as a large difficulty faced by students within the University, though generally people felt that the barrier was more at the stage of engaging with the process than during it.

Once again, thank you to everyone who engaged in forming this project for support, as ever please get in touch with any questions, concerns or ideas at wo@guild.bham.ac.uk and I will get back to you at the end of June.

Support Groups: What do you think?

Trigger Warning: This post discusses sexual assault and abuse, as well as asking for input into the decisions about the form and content that support groups on campus can take. I would encourage any who has experience of these to give your input if you feel comfortable doing so, as it would be invaluable in creating a good support mechanism on campus.

 

I have been in touch with the Head of Wellbeing at 3, Elms Road (Student Support Services) regarding the project to set up regular support sessions for survivors of sexual assault. They are very enthusiastic to help with this, and brought up several possibilities for how these could be organised and run.

I would greatly appreciate your input into this decision based on own experiences, relationships to others or even just ideas for moving forward, as students at the University of Birmingham are the best placed to shape the support that would be available to them, especially those who have experience of the current lack of support available.

At this stage, the options are vague and dependent on other factors such as resources, willing staff, availability and so on, however it is useful to explore in which directions we want to be leading towards. They are compatible and also not limiting, so if you have other ideas feel free to suggest them. I am looking into putting out a campus wide survey before the end of term or early next academic year to get information on UoB students’ experiences and the type of support preferred, though this preliminary enquiry will be helpful in getting support in place as soon as possible, to be built upon with the new data later.

Please share widely!

 

Options:

1- The Guild/Women’s Association and Elms Road run a regularly (monthly, weekly?) jointly organised support group which consists of a safe space wherein survivors can informally meet others with similar experiences and talk about how they are doing as well as feel supported and understood in their day to day thoughts and experiences, facilitated by an Elms Road counselor who can when necessary signpost participants towards other relevant support services.

2-Elm’s Road run a course of 6-8 sessions which are mapped out to aid survivors to come to terms with their experience in a guided and forward looking manner. These would be run by a counselor with relevant training and worked on in conjunction with the Women’s Association and Officer, and Welfare Officer.

3- The Women’s Association work with Women’s Aid to deliver monthly training and awareness sessions about surviving assault and abuse, promoted through the Guild and Elm’s Road.

 

Please send thoughts and feedback to wo@guild.bham.ac.uk before 6th June. All responses will be anonymised and confidential – though feel free to submit them as anonymous comments on this blog which I won’t approve or send in responses through others if you are at all uncomfortable with me seeing your name with your response.

If you have experienced any of the above or would like to know about the current support available in Birmingham, please take a look at the ‘Reporting Incidents’ page.

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