Campaigners are demanding mandatory education for university students to stop sexual assault on campus.
Groups such as Our Streets Now have said that sexual harassment is impacting young people’s “participation in student life”, with many female students avoiding both social and academic events out of concern for their safety.
Research Lead Ammaarah Faisal told a panel at the Women and Equalities Committee meeting earlier this month: “Students who are likely to be victims of sexual assault, such as women and non-binary people, are avoiding going to club nights, the pub, the gym and more.
“But it’s not just social events. We’ve spoken to girls who avoid evening lectures because they are worried about walking home in the dark.
“So it’s impacting their academic lives too.”
Activists are calling for the introduction of ‘bystander’ training programmes - schemes designed to encourage students to challenge peers who are displaying behaviours that could perpetuate sexual violence.
Zan Moon, a campaigner who previously worked with the Department for Education on the harassment girls and women face at schools and universities, is a keen advocate for bystander training.
She told NationalWorld: “These programmes not only teach people how to help a victim in a situation, but they also encourage perpetrators to reflect upon their behaviour - maybe in a way they haven’t previously been asked to do so.”
Ms Moon went viral in March 2021 when she wrote an open letter to multiple private schools and universities containing testimonies from female students who had experienced sexual harassment at the hands of their male peers.
She also hosts @screengrabthem on Instagram, an account which is dedicated to exposing online harassment with screenshot evidence and arguing that systemic change is needed in order to tackle sexual harassment.
The 26-year-old continued: “Women are well accustomed to changing their daily lives to keep themselves safe. So why don’t we change the system instead?”
Richie Benson, universities project lead at Beyond Equality, stressed the importance of “engaging men and boys in gender-based violence prevention”.
“You always hear about men who say they’re not the problem - and their friends aren’t the problem either,” he commented. “But if everybody is one of the “good guys”, then who’s perpetrating this behaviour?”
Mr Benson continued: “We need to reach those who are disengaged from the conversation. We need to speak to people who dismiss things like rape culture.
“Only then will things start to change.”
It’s for this reason that the university staff members who attended the committee meeting argued that bystander schemes should be mandatory - as otherwise those who need to attend the most, such as perpetrators, do not show up.
Dr Rachel Fenton, a law professor at the University of Exeter, explained: “It needs to be on an obligation footing for it to be taken seriously - both in terms of students attending mandatory classes, and universities being obliged to hold them.
“Currently, it’s all just guidance - and senior management don’t see it as their problem. If they’re making changes, they’re only being motivated by reputational damage.”
Dr Melanie McCarry, a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, added that implementing these programmes into the education setup is part of the “duty of care” universities owe to their students.
Meanwhile, on the topic of duty of care, Ms Faisal said that reporting needs to be more accessible and incidents need to be handled with more sensitivity, as students “do not trust universities to handle reports of sexual assaults.”
Our Streets Now has discussed with its student ambassadors how to improve confidence in universities’ sexual assault procedures, with ideas ranging from refining the reporting structure, to introducing trained sexual violence advisers, to, of course, implementing bystander programmes.
Ms Faisal also argued that starting wider conversations about sexual assault on campus would encourage male victims, who often experience fear or shame when it comes to discussing incidents, to come forward and would help reduce the “chronic underreporting” currently seen in universities.