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Interview with Abby Stapleton

CW: mentions of sexual assault, the AHRC survey, institutional betrayal and irresponsibility.

Abby Stapleton is the Women’s Officer at the National Union of Students. She was previously the President of the Monash Students’ Association. The National Union of Students’ 2015 Talk About It Survey and negotiations with the Australian Human Rights Commission were pivotal in initiating the national survey into sexual assault and sexual harassment released on 1 August.  She sat down with Freya Willis to discuss the survey and campaigning.


Q: What does the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission Survey into sexual assault on campus mean for universities and students?


Abby: Students and survivors will finally see their experiences reflected in the data. For too long universities have swept sexual assault under the rug and refused to acknowledge the extent to the problem. On 1 August universities won’t be able to hide from their failings, and students will have more evidence to back up what we’ve been saying for decades.


These sentiments have also been echoed by many student leaders and activists. According to Nathalie Blakely, the PARSA Women’s Officer ‘Although university management found it confronting, we as student representatives were not shocked by the insights it provided – it’s merely reinforced what we already knew.’


Q: How has Universities Australia been involved in the survey? How have they responded to the issue of sexual assault on campuses?

A: Universities Australia came into the picture when they offered $1 million dollars’ worth funding to the project in 2016. The involvement of UA has been troubling from the start, many students believed that their involvement jeopardised the independence and integrity of the survey, as universities are very much a part of the problem. Most universities have not responded adequately to sexual assault on their campus, which is why student representatives need to put the pressure on, and push universities to change.


Q: What is the NUS’ response to the release of the survey? What are some of the key changes the NUS are pushing for?

A: NUS will be launching a preventive campaign on 1 August. ‘Break the silence. End sexual violence’ centres around five key demands:


  1. Establish a federal complaints and compliance mechanism
  2. Sexual ethics and managing vicarious trauma training for all university and college staff and students
  3. Create and improve policies and procedures so that they are survivor-centric with clear disciplinary consequences for offenders
  4. Trauma-informed support services for students, including an on-campus trauma-specialist counsellor
  5. Maintain accurate and comprehensive records of reports


As well we will be running a photo campaign and facilitating state and campus actions. NUS will be looking to reform Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency’s policies to include specific safety precautions for universities, we hope to work with members of parliament and external organisations throughout this process. We will also be encouraging student representatives to play a key role in ensuring that the changes taken up by universities is meaningful and survivor centric.


At the ANU, ANUSA and PARSA have also handed a set of ANU specific demands to the ANU Administration. Blakely was involved in the drafting of the demands. She said they call on ‘the ANU to create a centralised policy, establish a centralised office to handle all reports, complaints and investigations, undertake a process of restorative justice, and to resource and fund specialised staff to properly support student survivors and students responding to sexual assault and sexual harassment.’ Brian Schmidt advised in his 1 August message that ‘the University accepts the majority of these recommendations.’


Q: Why is it important for there to be a national response to the survey results?

A: Universities need to know that students across the country are angry. All Australian Universities have failed students in some way on the issue of sexual assault, less than two per cent of sexual assaults leads to an expulsion. There are students at all universities who have been let down and who want to fight back, we will be more effective together than we will be divided.


Q: I am a student and I want to get more involved in the campaign, what can I do?

A: I would recommend getting in contact with your campus women’s officer or joining your women’s collective. Women students have been spearheading reform at their universities and are the best people to talk to. If your campus doesn’t have a women’s officer or a collective start one yourself! Chances are there are other students who are angry about your university’s inaction on sexual assault, organise a public meeting or run a campaign – also look to other women’s collectives at different universities for ideas!


Q: What advice would you give students who are leading or participating in campaigns?

A: Talk to other students doing similar things at other universities. I am empowered to do more and work harder on this issue because of the support that I have from other student activists. It’s also fantastic to bounce ideas off each other and organise collectively. Also take care of yourself, take the time you need to work through a very intense issue, don’t expect yourself to be constantly on call.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.