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Universities and safe spaces for women

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women's rights, safety at university, letters, vice chancellors#UniversityChallenge: women’s groups and students write to government and vice chancellors.

A leading national coalition of women’s organisations has written to Business Secretary Vince Cable, to Universities UK and to the Russell Group enclosing new legal advice which shows British universities are acting unlawfully if they fail to respond to reports of sexual assaults and to protect women students from other harassment and abuse.

Individual students have also written to their Vice Chancellors at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Nottingham Trent and Warwick universities enclosing the briefing and asking them to meet students and discuss their policy and practice regarding sexual assault and other abuse of women students.

The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) is asking Vince Cable to put pressure on universities, which his Department funds, to improve their policy and practice in response to sexual assaults and to ensure that all UK universities are creating a safe and equal space for women students to live, work and learn.

The Coalition is also asking Universities UK and the Russell Group, as well as the Association of Colleges, to influence their higher and further education members to meet with women’s groups and students, and to review their policies and procedures in this area as a matter of urgency.

The legal briefing, and a guide to the law and what individual students can do should they wish to bring a case against a university or college that fails them, are available on the EVAW Coalition’s website and are being shared widely on social media.

Law student Molly Ackhurst, for example, wrote to Professor Paul Webley, the Vice Chancellor of SOAS: “SOAS has a reputation for being one of the most liberal, freethinking and inclusive institutions in the country… Yet there are numerous examples of blatant sexism and poor… handling of students… The school must start upholding a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse.”

The EVAW Coalition’s briefing, authored by leading public lawyer Louise Whitfield, shows how Human Rights and Equality law can render existing university and college policies and procedures with regard to abuse of women unlawful, such as universities/colleges failing to investigate a report of rape and regarding it as a purely external police matter.

The law says that universities and colleges must be able to demonstrate that they took women’s equality and safety into account when developing policy on disciplinary procedures, accommodation, governance for student societies, campus security and more.

It also argues that the misuse of university resources – including the use of university computers or email addresses to abuse and harass women students, or allowing the promotion of sexist or discriminatory events such as a ‘Freshers Violation’ night – may be unlawful.

Sarah Green, acting director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said: “The scale of sexual assault in UK universities is alarming and should give any prospective applicant and their parents and carers pause for thought.

“We currently have a situation where women in the workplace are accorded more protection than young women who live as well as study at university.

“We know that some women students have dropped out of university following abuse that was not adequately dealt with by the institution. This cannot be allowed to continue.

“If the response to individual reports of sexual assault is poor, or if an institution is does not act in response to other forms of abuse including harassment, stalking, domestic violence, it is helping to foster a culture of impunity where abuse is not deterred.

“What we urgently need is a commitment by individual vice-chancellors to staff training, monitoring and recording of assault levels, and linking with local women’s support services to ensure victims are able to access help even if they do not report to the police.

“There is also strong evidence that ‘bystander programmes’ where ad campaigns on campus encourage the whole student community not to stand by when harassment and assault take place in public on campus, but to challenge potential perpetrators, can be effective in deterring assaults.

“We hope for a positive response from Vince Cable and from Universities UK and the Russell Group soon.”

The letters to the Business Secretary, Universities UK and the Russell Group, as well as the student ‘toolkit’ for writing to individual vice-chancellors can be read or downloaded by clicking here.

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