Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek has revealed she was stalked and threatened with rape when she was a Women’s Officer at the University of Technology, Sydney.
Ms Plibersek made the comments to an audience of university leaders and anti-discrimination campaigners at the launch of a national survey on student experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment at UNSW on Tuesday.
“A lot has not changed since I was women’s officer at UTS,” she said. “We campaigned on sexual harassment and sexual assault on university campuses, and … I was stalked at university, and when we had our sexual harassment campaign, I got a phone call in the middle of the night threatening to rape me because we had the campaign. It breaks my heart that more hasn’t changed since then. But what has changed is the willingness of the universities to work together, to not turn a blind eye to this problem.”
Following criticism of universities for putting their reputations ahead of supporting victims of sexual assault on campus, all 39 Australian universities have joined forces to participate in the survey, with the head of the universities’ peak body admitting the data collected could be “challenging”.
It comes a day after 15 former Women’s Officers at the University of Sydney wrote an open letter condemning the country’s oldest university for what they said was its failure to act on a decade of complaints about sexual harassment and assault on campus.
“Survivors report that they have been disbelieved, blamed for their abuse, silenced or abandoned by the institution. We wrote this letter because we are tired of the university’s inaction. We are using our collective voice to urge the university to step up and take charge on this issue,” said Anna Hush, a Women’s Officer at the university.
This was rejected by the university. A spokeswoman said “any suggestion that the university has stalled action on assault on campus is untrue. It remains deeply disturbing that the prevalence of sexual assault is not zero. However, an extensive campus survey has demonstrated that the incidence of sexual assault on campus is much lower than in the general community.”
The Universities Australia survey, which has been telegraphed for months as part of the sector wide “Respect. Now. Always.” campaign, is meant to create a baseline of quantitative data on the prevalence of the problem, as part of a process of improving policies and complaints handling procedures.
It will be run by the Australian Human Rights Commission, whose President Professor Gillian Triggs called the sector “courageous” for inviting an independent body to publicly investigate. “We’ve been receiving reports for a very long time, sporadically and from different institutions about sexual assault and sexual harassment. They’re extremely distressing and not just campus pranks. They’re appalling examples of sexist and demeaning attitude to women.”
Universities Australia Chair, Professor Barney Glover, said: “This project will no doubt be challenging. The data may well reveal the scope of further work for our institutions. And that is precisely why we need it.”
Increasing awareness of the issue of sexual assault on campus has been driven in part by a widely acclaimed 2015 US documentary, The Hunting Ground, which told the stories of students who had been raped or assaulted at university and then vilified after they spoke out about it. The Hunting Ground Australia Project has campaigned for action in this country, hosting viewings of the film at 29 universities and several residential colleges in the past year.
The survey and the broader campaign has the support of both sides of politics, as well as the National Union of Students and the National Tertiary Education Union.
But Ms Hush from the University of Sydney said “I do think it’s a valuable piece of research, but I’m a bit sceptical given the history of inaction from universities”.
She said there were lots of steps the universities could take to improve student safety and improve their support systems and reporting procedures.
“One of the most important things is educating students about consent and sexual assault.In the absence of good sex education at high school the uni really has a responsibility to provide students with that education if they want to create graduates who are socially responsible and can interact with other people in respectful ways.”
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