What will the Women’s Officers open letter to USYD’s VC actually achieve?

August 24, 2016
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Ten years’ worth of frustration regarding the treatment of sexual assault on campus has been poured into an open letter to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney. The letter came about after a number of current and former student councillors rallied together against the institution’s perceived inaction on matters relating to sexual assault.

Published on Monday, the letter has been signed by over a dozen Women’s Officers from over the past decade, and calls for “immediate action” from the university to help prevent instances of sexual assault, as well as better support for survivors.

The letter goes on to allege that the university is stalling necessary changes on purpose.

“It seems to us that the University has deliberately stalled action on sexual assault, assuming that once Wom*n’s Officers and other activists finish their term, or graduate from university, the institutional knowledge required for a sustained campaign on this issue is lost.”

The letter came just hours before it was announced that Universities Australia, a body representing some 39 universities, would launch a survey addressing on-campus sexual abuse. Reported to be “the most comprehensive of its kind", the UA initiative is part of wider campaign launched in February designed to address sexual harassment and assault.

The ongoing issue

On-campus sexual violence was also in the headlines in May, when USYD acknowledged that the under-reporting of sexual assault and harassment was a serious problem within its student body. This came in the wake of an investigation into the misogynistic culture that was reported to be thriving in one of the university’s oldest colleges.

Sexual harassment and assault are fundamentally an issue of student safety and welfare, and the University has a duty to its students to provide a safe environment that is conducive to learning. The University has failed to live up to this duty and instigate genuine cultural change.

This isn’t the first time the lack of action by universities has been identified as a barrier to safer campuses. In October last year, the National Union of Students said it too would launch a campaign to tackle sexual harassment. “The culture at universities is not changing,” said the union’s president, Rose Steele. This sentiment was echoed in the open letter.

"This has gone on long enough.

“Sexual harassment and assault are fundamentally an issue of student safety and welfare, and the University has a duty to its students to provide a safe environment that is conducive to learning. The University has failed to live up to this duty and instigate genuine cultural change.”

Will the letter spark change?

The signatories of the open letter hold little faith that media attention will result in meaningful action, expressing concerns that USYD has historically been more concerned with its reputation than the safety of its students.

“Periodically, a particularly high profile case may break into mainstream media, but as the media cycle moves on, and damage control measures are implemented, the issue is once again put to the bottom of the agenda,” reads the letter.

Anna Hush, the current co-Women’s Officer at Sydney University, also expressed her concerns about what the open letter and survey would actually achieve.

"I do think it's a valuable piece of research, but I'm a bit sceptical given the history of inaction from universities."

Joel Svensson

Business major, journalism minor and freelance writer, Joel pretends to be clever at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Image: University of Sydney Women's Collective official Facebook page

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