students protesting at the release of the AHRC survey results

From the ANUSA Women's Officer

CW: Discussion of sexual assault, sexual harassment, AHRC survey

It’s hard to know where to begin, especially as a woman, in this world, to tell you about all of the unrecognised, unremunerated, unrecorded work of generations of women advocates past. Indeed, maybe I’m an idealist, but I cannot imagine any important moment in history that has not fallen short of the expectations of those to whom it really mattered.

The release of the Australian Human Rights Commission survey into student experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault marks the first time that our experiences have made it onto the map. Finally, our experiences are recognised – joining the already recorded and publicly acknowledged human rights violations within our local communities. But as many student advocates have already told you – it’s no news to those who have always listened to and heard survivors of sexual violence and fought for them.

It’s been a long process. From the NUS Talk about the survey in 2015, to the UNSW Australian Human Rights Centre’s universities project, to, now, the joint UA/AHRC survey in 2017; it has been students who have led the push to end sexual violence on campus. Yet it always surprises me when I raise this issue with a fellow student and member of our community (while campaigning, at an event, or just in my life on campus), whose blank face reflects back a dumbfoundedness, confronted by and amused even, at the novel idea that this could be happening around them – to anyone.

I’m sorry to all the women who have bravely spoken truths about their experiences, only to be told that it’s not possible and that they must be mistaken (or lying!) about the wrongful acts of others. I’m sorry for all the times that, as women, we have, time and time again, genuinely expected others to relate to us as equals and with empathy, only to find that again we somehow didn’t make it onto the agenda – despite shouting, and hoping and even just being there.

It broke my heart when the top reasons cited that people didn’t report sexual violence to their university were because they ‘didn’t think it was serious enough’ and because they ‘didn’t need help.’ How is it possible for survivors to feel like their pain matters when, in failing to condemn the real perpetrators, the university that was supposed to give them a safe learning environment makes them feel like they are the problem? When countless times, women say to each other ‘I’m OK; I just want to rant about … [this incident where someone treated me as someone deserving of less care and rights than others],’ and don’t expect the world to change, or even help, when they are hurting.

Values like respect for difference and equal opportunity mean nothing if our powerful institutions do not protect them through concrete enforceable (and well-implemented) policies. If you also believe in these abstract ideals, I invite you to join us in pushing the ANU to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable through its existing investigative powers as a civic institution – only then will ‘zero tolerance’ become more than empty lies.

The media and public attention on sexual violence in university communities this August can be empowering – survivors finally, finally feel heard and have their experiences validated and addressed by others. But all I can think is why it took this survey to make our pain matter, and what happens after the spotlight moves on. I hope it doesn’t mean that the injustices that we have experienced become invisible again, and survivors become again troublemakers shouting to an uncaring audience.

Codie Bell, a beloved friend, activist and feminist leader in our community, said to me the other day after once again giving voice and strength to fellow survivors, ‘I’m just sick of finding different ways to explain to people why they should care.’

I was going to write another piece about my experiences of the unsustainable nature of advocacy work and what it means for student activism. But, basically, it boils down to this: You don’t get paid enough, so find other things like love and anger at injustice to fuel you. You won’t get all the change to happen, so make sure you work with others and pass the knowledge of how to fight best on to younger activists and build them up to carry on the work. Find the people who see, listen and care, put them together to do whatever they can from wherever they can. Just keep pushing.

(Nothing I say here is new, but it’s still true. I guess we still need more women to speak their truths to give strength to others – and to remind each other and ourselves that our experiences are still real.)

Recently at the NOWSA protest in front of Parliament House, I racked my brains for what I wanted to say to the anonymous media cameras… the best I could do was ‘It’s hard to hear our pain, but please stand with us.’ I hope that’s sincere enough a plea for you to care.

If this story has raised any concerns, you can contact:

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Crisis Line
(02) 6247 2525

ANU Counselling
(02) 6125 2442

1800 RESPECT
1800 737 732

ANU Women’s Department
Contact the Women’s Officer, Holly Zhang:
– For non-urgent inquiries: sa.womens@anu.edu.au
– For urgent matters: 0467 092 808