In recent years, universities and colleges across the world have begun to take steps to address the widespread problem of gender-based violence (GBV). There has been considerable attention paid to universities’ historical inaction on these issues, or where responses have been inadequate at best, and deeply harmful at worst. Research has highlighted ‘lad culture’ on campus and evidenced the high rates at which women students experience GBV. The NUS revealed 1 in 7 women students in the UK had experienced serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student. The study also found that 12% had been subjected to stalking, and over two thirds had experienced some kind of verbal or non-verbal harassment in or around their institution, including groping, flashing and unwanted sexual comments.
Many students may have experienced GBV before coming to university. One in three (35%) women worldwide has experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. GBV takes many forms, including sexual harassment and intimidation; rape and sexual assault; domestic abuse; coercive and controlling behaviour; child abuse and child sexual exploitation; trafficking; forced marriage; female genital mutilation; and so called ‘honour’ crimes. These experiences, before or during a university career, may impact on someone’s ability to be fully part of the university community and can have implications for their learning experience. Given what we know about prevalence, those employed in universities and those visiting the university campus are also likely to be affected.
Universities globally cannot be complacent about GBV and must take steps to prevent its occurrence, challenge the cultures that support it, and respond effectively when such violence occurs. Within this context, Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland embarked upon a comprehensive programme of work Preventing and Responding to Gender Based Violence. This has included a policy, an action plan, a network of first responders trained to take disclosures, a multi-agency working group, staff training, peer to peer education, and a programme of prevention work. It is specifically our primary prevention work through the #erasethegrey campaign that I will discuss here.
In seeking to develop a GBV campaign, we drew upon a body of research work conducted by colleagues in the Justice, Violence and Gender Research Group and worked collaboratively with colleagues in Student Wellbeing.
Our campaign would have three clear goals:
- to counter the silence around GBV and to make a clear statement that it is something that can be spoken about, challenged and addressed;
- to challenge the common myths, misunderstandings and scepticism that surround GBV and that often make it difficult for survivors to name their experiences and speak about them;
- and to draw attention to the university’s First Responder scheme where support and could be provided.
Our research tells us that institutional responses to survivors are often poor, it was therefore essential that a fully trained network of staff was in place before embarking on an awareness raising campaign. We also wanted to produce a campaign that sought to address the many forms GBV can take. While many universities have focussed on sexual misconduct, instituting consent training and bystander programmes as a primary response, we wanted to take a broader approach.
We were confident in the research that informed the need for the campaign, the approach and the goals; we were less confident in our graphic design capabilities. We drew upon the skills of our BSc Digital Design students undertaking the Design for Change module. Their brief was clear; to address the three aims, and to categorically avoid victim-blaming and scaremongering. It is vitally important to address GBV without placing responsibility on women for their own safety as some other campaigns and interventions have done. Risk avoidance approaches that focus on victims’ behaviour and fail to address perpetrators’ actions reinforce the problem.
Some of the #erasethegrey messages, reproduced with permission of Glasgow Caledonian University
The students produced a striking design using white and grey text on a black background. The grey text represents the myth or misunderstanding, and the white text highlights the ‘take home’ message. We worked with the students to produce 14 messages for the campaign, which we then named #erasethegrey. The campaign was launched in 2018 and assets include large pole banners for display outside, posters, motion graphics for use on digital screens and social media channels, and campaign merchandise such as stationery, bags and hoodies.
The campaign was an immediate success generating considerable attention, particularly on social media. It went ‘viral’ one night on Twitter, generating 130,000 likes, and 46,000 re-tweets at the last count. In 2019 #erasethegrey has been shortlisted for the Times Higher Education Awards Outstanding Student Support Award, and the Scottish Public Service Awards Championing Gender Equality Award.
As a result of its success, and because preventing and responding to GBV is everyone’s responsibility, we took the opportunity to make the campaign available to other organisations, free of charge, under licence. To date, the campaign has been used by eight other organisations with several more scheduled in the coming months. During the 16 Days of Activism Against GBV it was used by those involved in Fearless Glasgow, and run as a national campaign on social media channels by Police Scotland.
The very fact that institutions are approaching us in number suggests it may be generating wider cultural change. Of course, one campaign alone will not address the deeply embedded conditions that are both a cause and consequence of GBV, and anyone using this or other campaigns must embed it within a comprehensive programme of work that must include support services. However, any steps that seek to challenge the status quo, change institutional culture and practice, and make addressing GBV a community responsibility, is to everyone’s benefit.
Campaign versions are currently available for UK jurisdictions. We would be happy to adapt the campaign for use in other countries or jurisdictions. If you are interested in using #erasethegrey, please get in touch. You can follow us on twitter @GCUerasethegrey.
Lesley McMillan (@lejmcmillan) is Professor of Criminology and Sociology at Glasgow Caledonian University. Her research interests surround gender inequality and crime and justice. In particular, she is interested in gendered and sexual violence and the statutory and non-statutory response to it. She is especially interested in the criminal justice response to rape and sexual assault and in particular: the post-assault processing of cases; the problem of attrition; perceptions, attitudes and practices of criminal justice personnel including police officers, prosecutors, forensic medics and judges; and medico-legal interventions in rape and sexual assault.
Image of #erasethegrey banners reproduced with permission of Glasgow Caledonian University