Gender-based violence can be a form of genocide, and has been recognised as such since Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin first coined the term ‘genocide’ in the aftermath of World War II.
Today the issue of genocide continues to loom large.
In 2018, the international community marks the 70th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defines the crime of genocide under international law and obliges states parties to prevent and punish this crime. It also marks the 20th anniversary of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda handing down the first international conviction of an individual for genocide. Furthermore, it marks the 10th anniversary of the International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s request for an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir on charges of genocide and other crimes against ethnic groups in Darfur.
It is the year that the UN Human Rights Council found that there were serious grounds to believe that Myanmar’s Rohingya people have been subject to genocide, just two years after concluding that Iraq’s Yazidi people had likewise been subjected to that crime. And it is the year that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal – a joint initiative of the Cambodian government and the UN – convicted two surviving leaders of Pol Pot’s regime for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
In 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released the results of a landmark survey on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities. The results were staggering – the Commission found that one in ten women had experienced sexual assault while studying in the past two years, with roughly a quarter of these assaults occurring in a university setting. Queer, trans, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and students with disabilities were all found to be at particular risk of experiencing sexual violence. With 1.4 million students currently enrolled in higher education in Australia, this translates to thirty students a day, every day, experiencing sexual assault within a university setting.
This is not a new issue by any means. The Red Zone Report, released by national advocacy group End Rape on Campus (EROC) Australia in early 2018, showed that feminists at the University of Sydney have been speaking out about this issue since at least 1977. The stories of survivors have been particularly important in highlighting the devastating impacts of sexual violence, and the sense of institutional betrayal experienced when universities fail to respond with sensitivity and compassion.
Since the release of the AHRC report, universities have taken some steps towards developing stronger policies around sexual violence and improving the support offered to survivors on campus. But why has it taken them so long to act, when there have been consistent demands from students for many decades? This is particularly vexing when we compare Australia’s action on this issue to that of the United States. The first federal complaint against a university for engendering a ‘sexually hostile environment’ was filed in the US in 2011; by 2013, the United States Congress had passed legislation mandating that federally-funded universities undertake evidence-based primary prevention programs for sexual violence.
In contrast, Australia is lagging behind. We are only now seeing Australian universities begin to roll out consent modules for their students, many of which have been criticised by experts as ineffective, and called ‘unrealistic’ and ‘tokenistic’ by students. Australian universities also continue to miss the mark in their public responses to sexual violence; in September this year, the University of New South Wales sent an email to all staff and students in the aftermath of a sexual assault on campus, encouraging them to ‘walk with purpose and confidence’ and ‘maintain awareness of [their] situation’. Students and staff were acrimonious, pointing out the disjunct between the university’s victim-blaming language and their stated ‘zero tolerance’ approach to sexual assault.
Part of the problem in Australia in addressing campus-related sexual violence is the lack of an effective federal body for overseeing the sector’s approach. When universities in the US fail to respond adequately to complaints of sexual violence, students can file complaints with the Office for Civil Rights using the Title IX statute, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded university. This has been a critical tool for US survivors and advocates to hold universities to account. In contrast, when students in Australia are dissatisfied with their universities’ responses to sexual violence, there are scarce options for taking their complaints further. Complaints made to universities can take months or even years to resolve, during which time student-survivors are forced to attend classes or share residences with perpetrators. This is in breach of federal standards stipulating that universities must promote a safe environment, have clear and timely structures in place for investigating complaints, and provide support, advocacy, and confidentiality for complainants.
There is one federal body in Australia that may be equivalent to the Title IX mechanism in the United States. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) is responsible for overseeing universities’ compliance with federal standards – so in theory, TEQSA could sanction universities for mishandling sexual violence complaints with fines or even deregistration.
In 2017, End Rape on Campus Australia filed the first complaint with TEQSA related to an instance of sexual violence. The 17-page complaint, supported by 112 pages of documentation, argued that one Australian university was in breach of its own policies by allowing a man convicted of child sex offences and placed on the sex offender register to continue studying, after being made aware of the risk this student posed to others. Over a year later, however, EROC Australia is yet to receive any notification of the findings of the investigation. Sharna Bremner, founder and director of EROC Australia, notes that “TEQSA did not have clear or accessible procedures for filing a complaint – it’s not set up for students to lodge grievances in the same way as Title IX. Filing a complaint with TEQSA typically requires a student to have first utilised their university’s internal complaints mechanism and then taking their grievances to an external body, such as the state ombudsman, before a complaint can be lodged with TEQSA.“
“Pursuing our TEQSA complaint has taken approximately 350 hours over the course of thirteen months, and on a number of occasions, we have had to escalate our questions to senior management in order to receive a response. When TEQSA’s investigations had been completed, we learned that the university that is the subject of the complaint determines what, if any, information we receive about the findings,” Bremner commented.
This points to the need for stronger oversight in how universities respond to sexual violence. Advocacy groups have called for a federal taskforce to coordinate the sector’s response, but as yet this has not been put into place. As it stands, universities have been left to determine their own responses to sexual violence, which have largely been ad hoc and reactive. As I have argued elsewhere, their prevention efforts have been particularly disappointing. Many university administrators have failed to engage with the expertise of academic staff in disciplines like gender and cultural studies, criminology, and social work, which should be some of their key resources in developing prevention and response strategies.
We are now at a point where we have a clear sense of the problem. We also have good evidence about what needs to be done; for example, the good practice guide developed by academic researchers at the UNSW Australian Human Rights Institute. But to genuinely transform cultures of violence in higher education, it will take a coordinated approach from the sector, and accountability mechanisms for when universities fail. When universities have shied away from public scrutiny in this area for so long, transparency and accountability will be the key to creating genuine change.
Anna Hush is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, researching how student activists have responded to sexual violence at Australian universities. Anna is also a Director of End Rape on Campus Australia, a national advocacy group working towards an end to sexual violence in university communities.
Over the past few decades, feminist activity has spread to more than a hundred countries in both old (street marches and ), and new forms (e.g. the exploding digital activism of the #metoo movement). This past success, however, does not justify complacency about the inevitability of progress on women’s rights, which continues to be strongly contested around the world. Indeed, the spread of feminist activism has increased the frequency of state repression specifically focused on women’s organizing; and transnational campaigns funded by donors in rich countries have pushed opposition to what they call “gender ideology,” sponsoring initiatives to resist and roll back attitudinal and policy changes in women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and related areas.
Across the world we are witnessing an atmosphere of backlash to efforts to address broader gender equality efforts and campaigns to address violence against women and the LGBTIQ community. Resistance to progressive schools curricula designed to improve acceptance and awareness of gender inequality and LGBTQ rights has emerged in Peru on the Con Mis Hijos No Te Metas (“don’t mess with my kids”) campaign, and is a phenomenon in Colombia, Mexico, France, Poland, and Canada and Australia. In the USA, recent reports indicate the Trump Administration is seeking to remove the word “gender” from UN documents and domestically, erasing LGBTQ people from websites and other government documents.
At the same time, funding for women’s initiatives is declining. Development assistance targeted to women has declined 20% overall. Similarly, funding from the USA, a major source of funding for women’s organizations worldwide, has also declined. This decline means a loss of material support for women-focused initiatives, including vital resources for anti-violence against women initiatives.
These factors are contributing to a worrying trend in women’s organizing, which in spite of the explosive growth in the eighties and nineties, has stalled globally. And even the best funded organizations need more support. Women’s organizations have tiny budgets compared with other social movement organizations: AWID found that the combined budget of the 1000 women’s organizations they studied was $106 million, a figure dwarfed by the budgets of even a single organization in the environmental field such as Greenpeace at $309 Million, or child well-being such as Save the Children. 1.442 Billion. (AWID 2013).
Women’s activists worry that core funding focused on feminist values and purposes is hard to come by, with funding increasingly tied to specific programs, and funded by corporate interests or offered in partnership with such interests. Those organizations who are at the forefront of identifying the intersectional nature of violence against women, find funding particularly hard to secure. This situation makes it difficult for women’s organization to set their own agenda, which is essential for those seeking to address violence against women.
Given the worrying context of backlash and funding cuts, during these 16 days of activism, we must call for greater support for women’s own efforts to address violence and oppression. Feminists’ activists have drawn the connection between women’s rights and human rights; this equation must remain at the forefront of efforts to address the violence and oppression that blocks our pathways to greater democracy, peace and sustainability.
Written by Fiona Mackay (University of Edinburgh), Louise Chappell (University of New South Wales), Krishna Menon (Ambedkar University Delhi)
Welcome to our blogathon to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Campaign. Here we plan to post a blog on each of the 16 Days of Activism, to bring attention to a particular aspect of the scourge of violence against women which occurs in ‘peacetime’ and conflict, at international, national and local levels, in our homes, in public spaces and workplaces, on campuses, in parliaments, corporations and third sector organisations, in sport, militaries and entertainment industries. Topics will range from #MeToo, to gender-based violence and the rights of children, to addressing gender-based violence in post-conflict settlements.
The blogathon is a collaboration across our three organisations, which seek to advance women’s equality and support a world free from sexual and gender based violence: GenderEd at the University of Edinburgh, the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney and Ambedkar University, Delhi.
The 16 Days of Activism is now in its 27th year, originating from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute in 1991. The program starts on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and ends on 10 December, Human Rights Day, in an effort to galvanise action to end violence against women and girls around the world.
This year the theme is #HearMeToo, directed towards exposing the magnitude of sexual harassment and other forms of violence suffered by women everywhere. It is aimed at breaking the silence around gender-based violence, where ever it happens, and transforming the behaviours, norms and institutions that support gender-based violence.
Attention to gender-based violence is arguably greater than ever, as evidenced by the international reach of the #metoo movement across all sectors, and this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for 2018 awarded to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.
New efforts are taking place at local, national and international levels to stamp out gender-based violence and to protect and empower victim/survivors of. Within our own settings we have recently seen positive developments: In India, transformative training programmes for police, including the Justice for Her initiative, following on from the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape; In Australia, the introduction of paid domestic violence leave; and, in Scotland, new laws to tackle coercive control that have been described as ‘gold standard’. At the UN-EU level, the new €500 million Spotlight Initiative, a multi-year program focused on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls. Internationally, each of the Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security Resolutions and the International Criminal Court have mandates to ensure women’s voices are heard and to strengthen accountability for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
Yet, the problem remains in epidemic proportions. Globally, the WHO cites gender-based violence as a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights. According to recent WHO data across 80 countries, almost one third of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. Globally, as many as 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. In addition to intimate partner violence, globally 7% of women report having been sexually assaulted by someone other than a partner. Evidence shows that intimate partner and sexual violence are mostly perpetrated by men against women. New forms of technology and the cyber-sphere are further exacerbating this problem.
According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation poll in 2018, India holds the dubious reputation of being the world’s most dangerous country for women and girls, due to the high risk of sexual violence and trafficking. But countries including Australia and the UK are by no means immune to the problem. As the femicide index initiative called ‘Counting Dead Women’ shows, in the UK and Australia, more than 100 women each year are killed by their current or former intimate partners, in ways that follow a similar pattern, and occur in similar circumstances.
Trends across the globe in terms of resurgent authoritarianism, rising populist movements, xenophobia, militarisation and securitisation (including the ongoing so-called War on Terror) create a dangerous and insecure environment for all; but women (particularly women from minority groups, castes, and identities) experience the effects, and lose rights and freedoms, in ways very different to men.
Clearly, much more needs to be done.
Across the next 16 days we will bring together a range of academic researchers and students, practitioners from NGOs and international organisations, and activists to amplify the 16 Days of Activism, and to expose, share, and campaign on a range of issues.