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Universities are failing victims of sexual harassment, say campaigners

A damning report from the National Union of Students into the “lad culture” at British universities makes for worrying reading.

The Lad Culture Audit was carried out between December 2014 and February 2015, based on responses from 35 institutions and 20 student unions. It comes after the 2010 NUS Hidden Marks study, which showed that one in seven female students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault and 68 percent were victims of one or more forms of sexual harassment on campus.

The Lad Culture Audit reveals that, while the majority of institutions and student unions had policies covering equality, diversity, bullying and harassment, “many were ill-defined, often not relevant to lad culture and at times unclear what is meant by sexual harassment and assault.”

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According to the NUS report only 51 percent of the institutions had a formal policy on sexual harassment and only one in 10 had a policy that covered the display of sexist and discriminatory material.

One of the most shocking findings was that many of the complaints and disciplinary procedures in place to deal with cases of sexual harassment and assault put the responsibility for resolving the matter on the victims, by suggesting that they talk to the perpetrator.

Campaigners have responded to the findings with a warning: universities are trivialising the sexual harassment of students by putting the onus on victims to reconcile with their attackers.

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For example, one institution’s HR handbook states: “Speaking to the person who is causing you distress is always an informal option and an approach preferred by many in delicate circumstances. This is because sometimes individuals are genuinely not aware of the offensive effect of their behaviour and will naturally stop when it is brought to their attention.”

Forcing victims to “take responsibility” for incidents by advising them to talk to their tormentors informally before reporting them puts them at further risk, said the NUS.

Susuana Amoah, NUS Women’s Officer, said: “We, the student movement and society as a whole, are no longer in a position where we can continue to allow the issues women face on campuses across the U.K. and beyond to be ignored. Yes — women can participate in education, work and social activities, but that doesn’t mean that these spaces are accessible to all women or that women are treated fairly and respectfully. In fact, harassment, violence and blatant discrimination can make education and other spaces inaccessible for many students, not just women.”

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So what happens now? Nine university student unions have volunteered to take part in the Lad Culture Pilot Scheme, which sees the unions working with NUS to put together their own Lad Culture Strategy and share their experiences with other participants. This is a start but more needs to be done. The development of national guidance to tackle the issues of sexual violence and harassment, for starters, which should require each institution to have a support group.

Hopefully, the next time the NUS carries out a Lad Culture Audit, more institutions will have a solid framework in place for identifying and dealing with sexual harassment — as well as stopping it from happening in the first place — and clear information for staff, students and victims.

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