Back to school, push forward for change

More than 130 young men and women from Cairo participated in the “edit-a-thon” through which they received training on editing and writing Arabic content on women in science and technology. During the event, volunteers submitted a number of biographies of female leaders in STEM for reviewing and posting on Wikipedia Arabic website. UN Women/Emad Karim

In many parts of the world, as the month of September rolls in, school is back in session. University students around the world are filing into classrooms, moving into dormitories and crowding coffee shops. Over the course of their studies, they will gain the knowledge and skills needed to propel their careers and meet the peers and professors who will help shape their worldviews. Despite the excitement of student life, campus environments also pose unique risks. Each school year, women experience violence on university campuses, including sexual assault, stalking, intimate partner violence, dating violence and sexual harassment.

Statistics show that on-campus violence against women is a severe and pervasive issue. Nearly one in four women undergraduate university students in the United States reported having experienced sexual assault or sexual misconduct in a 2015 survey across 27 universities. At Cairo University in Egypt, 70 per cent of women indicated they had experienced sexual harassment, and, higher still, more than three quarters of women students across eight universities in Bangladesh reported incidents of sexual harassment.

The repercussions of such violence are far-reaching, affecting the physical, mental and emotional health of survivors. Survivors on campus might face particular challenges related to living in proximity to perpetrators, sharing classes or other spaces, and difficulty maintaining anonymity and social life on campus.

Because of these unique factors, addressing violence against women on university campuses requires specific strategies. Take a look at how students, survivors, universities and allies can push for changes that make #backtoschool safe.

“Today I know how to raise my voice against sexual harassment.”

Students gather to share their experience and organize to prevent sexual harassment on campus.

Students gather to share their experience and organize to prevent sexual harassment on campus.

Koyesh Miah is a 23-year-old student at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet, Bangladesh and, until recently, he was a silent bystander to the sexual harassment prevalent in his surroundings.

“Gender-based violence and harassment is considered normal… Growing up, we saw discrimination against girls everywhere,” says Koyesh. “Many of us thought [sexual harassment] was harmless fun…We didn’t realize how our behaviour affected women and girls.”

Koyesh’s perspective changed after hearing the stories of his peers in a Sexual Harassment Prevention Committee meeting on his campus, a safe space created for students to share their experiences and organize for violence prevention. The committee was created as part of a wider campaign to build capacity in preventing violence against women across four major universities in Bangladesh.

Koyesh says the campaign has helped him and others to “understand how much this so-called ‘funny’ behaviour humiliated women and girls…how it affects their self-esteem, confidence, mobility and opportunities… Today I know how to raise my voice against sexual harassment.”

Sumaya Rahman Kanti. Photo: Anisur Rahman Anis

At the University of Rajshahi, Sumaya Rahman Kanti, age 21, is also involved in mobilizing her campus community to end sexual harassment against women. “As a female student, I know how other female students suffer, and the kinds of barriers and obstacles they need to overcome. I have faced this harassment too,” she shares.

In addition to the Sexual Harassment Prevention Committees established at the four universities involved in the campaign, Sumaya’s school, as well as the others, now have dedicated telephone hotlines and clearly defined procedures for investigations and referrals to university authorities and law enforcement.

Since beginning the campus campaign, Sumaya has noticed that student union leaders, often affiliated with political parties, who previously misused their power to harass female students have now committed to taking action to prevent harassment on campus. Progress like this keeps Sumaya pushing for change. “If we don’t ask for justice, if we don’t ask for change, nobody will come forward,” she says.

As more students like Sumaya and Koyesh step in to stop sexual harassment, the momentum to create safe campuses for all continues to build.

Building a global movement

In the wake of recent global movements to end sexual harassment and sexual assault, university staff and students around the world have taken charge of changing campus cultures, from the cafeteria to the classroom.

In Serbia, eight universities have undertaken a comprehensive approach to ending violence against women and girls, with support from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. The three-year initiative provided education for students and teachers on violence against women and trained over 400 teachers on reporting incidences of violence.

Students found the gender-based violence training sessions to be particularly informative. “What I’ve learnt is that nothing about violence should be normalized, and that violence isn’t just slaps and beating, but that it is a much wider notion,” says participating student Djurdjina Cvetinovic.

The University of Witwatersrand in South Africa has taken similar steps to end violence against women on campus. The school began by creating a Gender Equality Office with a set of clear policies dedicated to support staff and a mandate to tackle campus violence.

Delia Makabeni, a student intern who worked with the Gender Equality Office to develop comprehensive zero-tolerance policies, emphasized that institutional action is essential to rooting out rape-culture: “My ‘click-moment’ was when I came to the realization that gender-based violence does not happen on an isolated-case basis; that it is an institutional problem that is deeply embedded in the fabric of society. It therefore needs institutional measures to unravel.”

The first launch of HeForShe in Cambodia took place at Battambang university, with hundreds of youth discussing education and its role in achieving gender equality. Photo: UN Women/Mariken Harbitz

The University of Witwatersrand is one of ten global universities that made concrete commitments to gender parity as part of the HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 initiative. All ten schools agreed to provide campus-wide training and briefings for all faculty, administration and students on sexual violence, and four made pledges specific to ending violence on campus.

“As we leave home for the first time to study at the places that we have worked so hard to get [in], we must not see or experience double standards,” said UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson at the event where the university commitments were unveiled. “A university should be a place of refuge that takes action against all forms of violence.”

Textbook tips for eliminating violence against women on campus

Members of “Be a Man” and “Fakat Cure” (Real Girls) clubs headed by Amer Dzekman 23 y.o. and Muhidina Brankovic 23 y.o. meet at the Youth Center to exchange ideas on peer education and outreach focused on breaking gender stereotypes. Both clubs are engaged in public awareness campaigns targeting youth and discussing such taboo subjects as sexual reproductive health, as well as changing masculinity and ending violence against women. Sarajevo, Bosnia, Dec. 19, 2016. Photo: UN Women/Rena Effendi

Cutting out campus violence requires strategies that work across multiple levels and address the root causes of on-campus violence. Initiatives should be comprehensive, connecting at the individual, relationship, community, and institutional levels. They should be centred on survivors by prioritizing their rights, ensuring their access to medical care, facilitating psychosocial support and providing legal assistance.

The needs of all students must be accounted for, especially those that face multiple types of discrimination (such as sexual orientation, disability status or ethnicity) and are often at risk of experiencing higher levels of violence. And, prevention strategies work best when students from marginalized groups are involved at every step of the way, from designing the strategies to implementing them and taking stock of the results.

Lastly, cultures of impunity must be replaced with respect, equity and accountability to truly flip the script on campus violence. Universities are under obligation to ensure the safety and security of students and campus, and that means ensuring that perpetrators are held accountable.

While each student body, campus community and university system must collaborate on a unique set of strategies for creating a safe place for all, experts have identified a set of key steps to stamp out violence against women on campus:

10 essential actions from UN Women’s Guidance Note on campus violence prevention

1. Assess the situation. Understanding the extent and nature of violence against women on campus is critical to determining appropriate responses.

2. Put a policy in place. Develop a comprehensive, zero tolerance policy that that applies to all students, faculty and staff.

3. Assign a dedicated university coordinator to address violence against women.

4. Put in place protocols that outline the procedures. Specific protocols are needed for reporting and confidentiality, investigations, staff and faculty code of conduct, and more.

5. Offer interim and supportive measures. Ensuring the survivor’s safety and the safety of others includes measures such as making accommodations for attendance and exam schedules and access to comprehensive care.

6. Actively monitor and identify areas for improvement. Once measures have been deployed, it’s important to regularly monitor and find out how well they are working. Combining surveys with focus group discussions with campus staff, students and survivors is a good way to do this.

7. Have a dedicated budget. Like most effective interventions, adequate funds are required to address campus violence against women and create an institutional culture of zero tolerance.

8. Provide essential services. Universities have a responsibility to respond to survivor’s needs and refer cases appropriately.

9. Raise awareness and offer bystander programmes. It is everyone’s responsibility, including staff, faculty and students, to take action to prevent violence against women from happening on university campuses.

10. Promote respectful relationships and challenge harmful masculinities. Interventions on these themes commonly include consent education, mainstreaming gender, and evaluating power relations.

Ready to learn more? Download the full guide on preventing campus violence .

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UN Women is the United Nations entity for #genderequality and women's empowerment.