On Friday, the ANU held the Respectful Relationship Summit in partnership with the Respectful Relationships Unit to discuss the progress made towards the realisation of the Sexual Violence Prevention Strategy. Hosted by Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt, the Summit was open to ANU staff and students to enable a discussion and reflection on the effectiveness of ANU initiatives focussed on addressing and preventing sexual violence on campus.

After 45 minutes of introductions and off-kilter jokes about AFL, the Summit split attendees into three breakout rooms with the intention of fostering “constructive forward-facing discussions” on key topics such as envisioning a campus free from sexual violence, incorporating the Respectful Relationship Unit as a core element of the ANU experience, and actively engaging respectful behaviour in all relationships in teaching spaces on campus. 

While the summit and its leaders had good intentions, for student representatives and advocates the event fell flat. In comments made to Woroni, ANUSA Women’s Department Officer, Siang Jin Law, expressed disappointment arguing that the organisers did little to acknowledge the profound ‘hurt to student activists and survivors’ within the Sexual Assault and Sexual Harrassment (SASH) sphere. Additionally, Law noted that there was no acknowledgment of student advocates’ recent achievements. 

Law further criticised the event, calling the summit ‘lip service’ that failed to acknowledge the shortcomings of ANU and did not provide useful solutions to issues around SASH.  

During the first 45 minutes of the summit, few attempts were made to address SASH directly. Rather, many comments made by the speakers read as vague allusions to outdated perceptions of rape culture.

In this vein, Chancellor Julie Bishop expressed that the University Council’s ‘aim is for ANU to be a safe and welcoming place… our aim is that we respect each other’. 

However, ANUSA President Lachy Day and and PARSA President Utsav Gupta, did invoke a call to action from the ANU. Day highlighted the consequences of focusing on long term change, which while important leaves current students stuck in a toxic culture. Gupta expanded on this, suggesting that the extensive, fast paced decision making we’ve witnessed from the ANU as a response to COVID-19 represents the possibility to do better with regards to SASH. 

Following on from the summit, ANUSA, PARSA and the ANUSA Women’s Department co-hosted an online vigil on August 1st to commemorate the third anniversary of the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) report. ANUSA Vice-President Madhumitha Janagaraja, PARSA Vice-President Elena Sheard, ANUSA Women’s Officer Siang Jin Law and Chair of the Interhall Council Christian Flynn spoke at the vigil, acknowledging that though significant progress had been made in the past three years, this has been at the expense of student advocates. 

Law characterised the University’s reliance on student advocates to achieve progress in the SASH space as an unsustainable solution. Law also expressed concern about the continued hurt and mistrust felt amongst students and noted that students have continuously fallen through the cracks due to ANU’s delayed responses to SASH issues.

Flynn pointed out that multiple recommendations from 2019’s NOUS Review remain disregarded by the university and expressed disappointment in the university’s ignorance of the suggestions of residential student leaders. 

Sheard highlighted the lack of changes to the staff code of conduct as being of particular concern to postgraduate students, who primarily experience sexual harassment within their workplaces. Many issues remain unresolved in regards to sexual violence on campus; it’s up to ANU to accelerate their resolution.

An ANU spokesperson commented that “The Respectful Relationships Summit, brought together our entire community to discuss ideas and initiatives to prevent sexual violence in our community and better respond if and when it does occur. We need to approach this as a whole of community, including our staff and our students, and be guided by best practice and evidence. We need our communities’ voices to help shape the ideas and identify the areas where we are doing well so we can scale them up and apply these across the entire community.”

On the topic of the Respectful Relationships Unit, the spokesperson noted that “since 2019 over 3,000 people in our community have participated in awareness raising education sessions, responding to disclosures training and bystander education.”

If you would like to sign the ANU Call to Action, you can do so here

Juliette Baxter was ANUSA Deputy Women’s Officer in 2018