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Reclaiming the Narrative: university students confronting sexual violence on campus

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While Canberra’s university campuses are some of our city’s proudest precincts—full of vibrant student life and academic excellence—beneath the surface lies a dark truth.

This truth is that these colourful campuses are dogged by persistent incidents of sexual violence. In 2017, a national survey by the Human Rights Commission found that 3.5 per cent of respondents from the Australian National University (ANU) claimed to be sexually assaulted on campus in 2016. These assaults disproportionally affected women, with the report noting that residential colleges were a particular area of concern.

In 2018, the Red Zone Report by End Rape on Campus Australia combed through decades of testimony, reporting and evidence to draw a jarring picture of behaviour in university residential colleges, such as Crikey’s 2011 reporting of “rock spidering” at ANU’s St John XXIII College during O-Week, where students would knock on the doors of freshers students, and if they opened the door it was “taken as consent to have sex”.

These realities are a dark stain on our university’s reputations, especially at a time when allegations concerning sexual violence in politics and at Parliament House—less than a kilometre from campus—dominate national discourse. But a team of ANU students is looking to change this narrative, putting a stop to sexual violence on campus in a holistic manner.

The STOP Campaign aims to raise awareness of sexual violence on university campuses and support survivors of sexual violence to share their stories. The Campaign was founded in 2018 by ANU student Camille Schloeffel, then a Senior Resident at Fenner Hall.

The STOP Campaign’s Campaign Manager and fourth-year ANU Law and Psychology student Bianca Nicotra explains that Camille was inspired to start the grassroots campaign in response to disclosures she received from students in her care.

Camille felt both dismayed at her own lack of training around the handling of sexual violence disclosures and also a lack of support from the broader college community—especially after her first efforts to post encouraging and supportive material around the college were torn down or defaced. So The STOP Campaign was born. For Bianca, then a first-year student at Fenner Hall, it was a moment of clarity.

“For me, it was like ‘Wow. I’ve never seen people having these conversations before’.”

In 2021, it’s a different story. The recognition of advocate Grace Tame as Australian of the Year and the uproar around the alleged assault of Brittany Higgins have meant discussions around the need to tackle sexual violence are becoming mainstream, even on campus.

“This year, I had many people come up to The STOP Campaign stall at [ANU O-Week] Market Day and ask my perspective on the Brittany Higgins case and the Government’s reaction,” says Bianca. “As it becomes more talked about, people are more willing to engage and have this conversation.”

She adds that while people with a platform sharing their stories is important, The STOP Campaign is focused on everyday voices and allowing their stories to be heard.

To amplify these voices, The STOP Campaign has created a series of resources, including zines, pamphlets and posters, aimed at reclaiming the narrative of sexual violence on campus. They contain anonymous survivors’ stories, poems, stories and resources for support. The STOP team then distribute these at university events and across campus.

“They’re regular people who live in these [ANU] colleges, who work at the ANU, who are just walking through campus one day and something happens to them,” says Bianca of the contributors.

ANU students reading STOP Campaign materials.

For Audrey Mims, third-year PPE and Law student and Lead Events Coordinator for The STOP Campaign, these resources speak to one the core values of the campaign—reducing the stigma around sexual violence.

“It’s really important for us to support people to have these conversations in our campuses and to make victim-survivors in our community feel supported too.”

Last weekend, the campaign hosted the first day of The Empowerment Program. A six-week program aimed at providing a safe space for participants to feel empowered through self-defence, mindfulness and confidence building, The Empowerment Program is taking place each Saturday from 27 February until 3 April and is open to cis and trans women and non-binary people aged 18-25, whether they are ANU students or not. Registrations are still open.

“It was designed out of a need in the community to empower victim-survivors of sexual violence,” explains Audrey, although she adds that participants do not need to identify as survivors or victims of sexual violence to join the program.

“We realise that cis and transgender women and non-binary folk are the group in our community that is most subjected to sexual violence. So we want to create a program to build an inclusive community and foster confidence, learn leadership skills and self-defence.”

For Audrey and Bianca, the path ahead is clear. They have plans to expand to the University of Canberra later this year and see The STOP Campaign as a nation-wide initiative one day.

“There’s a growing sentiment of frustration,” says Audrey. “We want to focus on creating a cultural shift—to make survivors feel supported.”

“Even if we reach one individual, even if we encourage one individual to speak out and say ‘this wasn’t my fault, this was never my fault’, then it’s all worth it,” adds Bianca.

You can find out more about The Stop Campaign at thestopcampaign.org.au and find out more about The Empowerment Program at thestopcampaign.org.au/empowerment-program-1

IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

  • Canberra Rape Crisis Centre: (02) 6247 2525
  • 1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732
  • Lifeline: 131 114
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
  • ANU Counselling Centre: (02) 6125 2442

 

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