Tuesday 09-02-2016 - 16:50
This is a guest blog from Natalie James, Women's Officer at University College London Union.
This January, UCL agreed to officially adopt a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment. But that is not all: they also agreed to follow through an action plan which commits them to providing specialist training for staff, active-bystander training for students, and running a big publicity campaign about sexual harassment – among other things. There’s more work UCL needs to do to, for sure, especially when it comes to supporting those who’ve experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus, but it’s a big step nonetheless. Students and Women’s Officers at UCLU have been campaigning and lobbying to see this change for over two years now. Those who are interesting in reading about the plan can find out more here.
One of my first memories of university is of being sexually harassed. The incident was by no means the worst incident of harassment I’ve experienced, but it nonetheless shaped my time at UCL; it informed the friendship groups I made, the way I interacted with other students. It was only one small incident, but it had a large impact on my life. At the time, I just shrugged it off – it did not occur to me that I could complain about the incident, or that UCL would take it seriously if I did.
And this is one of the key issues around universities and sexual harassment: they do not tell their students that it is not okay. Maybe sexual harassment is (kind of, sort of, if you read between the lines) covered under a code of conduct or a policy, but there’s so little communication about the university’s stance on sexual harassment that this may as well be useless. In 2015, the NUS Lad Culture & Sexism survey found that only 10% of students were aware or reporting procedures for sexual harassment at their institution: this is not acceptable. And up until I ran to be Women’s Officer, I was one of the ignorant 90%.
It is not enough to only say you don’t tolerate sexual harassment: universities and students’ unions need to be loud and proud about it. Let’s face it: no student is going to read through the minutiae of policy, so merely having policy is not enough. We need to speak to students, to union and university staff about what is and is not okay, about consent, about respecting boundaries, about what they can do when harassment happens in front of them.
UCLU’s Zero Tolerance campaign has not just been about changing policy: it has, from the start, also been focused on education and empowerment. Sexual harassment and sexual violence will only stop being a problem at universities when the culture within HE that ignores, condones, or diminishes this issue is challenged and eradicated.
Change is a long-term process, but it is happening here at UCL. The dedication and action of some amazing feminist student activists has got us to this point, and so I just want to give a shoutout to previous UCLU Women’s Officers, who got the ball rolling on this campaign, to all our Zero Tolerance volunteers and student trainers who have given so much time and energy to the campaign, and really helped make Zero Tolerance a key issue at UCL and UCLU, and to everyone who has proudly engaged with the campaign and its aims. We’ve changed so much already, and it’s fantastic to see UCL acknowledge our work and commit to spreading our change across the whole institution.