THE issues of consent, sexual violence, and harassment have been to the fore of many people’s thoughts recently, particularly in the wake of the tragic abduction and death of Sarah Everard, a young woman who dared to walk home alone at 9pm in a well-lit and populated area.
This shocking event, just as the world prepared to celebrate female leaders, influencers, and role models on International Women’s Day, has thrown into the spotlight the limitations that women put on their own physical space in order to stay safe.
It has pushed into the public discourse the everyday extra precautions that women and vulnerable groups take to protect themselves. It is timely, therefore, that the THEA PROPEL (Promoting Consent and Preventing Sexual Violence) Report was published this month as it is a significant step along the way towards enabling higher education institutions to meet head-on the societal challenge of sexual harassment.
The THEA PROPEL Report outlines the structures that have been developed to support the implementation of the national Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions: Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive – Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions, published in April 2019. This report was a collaborative effort led by the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA), under the exceptional stewardship of Dr Eavan O’Brien, author and Policy Analyst, and a Working Group of representatives from Institutes of Technology throughout the country.
I was privileged to be invited to join this Working Group in my capacity as Athena SWAN Administrator in CIT, with IT Tralee being ably represented by Rosalynd Hayes, Student Engagement and Retention Officer. The group first met in November 2020, prior to the January 1 formation of Munster Technological University, a merger of Cork Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Tralee. There were many familiar faces at the table, and a shared goal to inform policies that would promote the safety and wellbeing of not only students and staff in higher education, but also the wider community.
The support for this initiative is far-reaching within MTU, with Professor Margaret Linehan, Chair of the Athena SWAN self-assessment team, fully backing the implementation of consent training within the college.
Through engagement with NUIG’s Active* Consent team, 956 first year students participated in five online consent workshops in the Cork campuses, and another 351 in Tralee, all before the merger, in the first semester of this academic year. To reinforce these efforts, we formed working groups with diverse memberships to ensure inclusivity and representation, as well as external expertise.
We also undertook staff training to promote an understanding of the whole area of consent, sexual harassment and violence (SVH). Celine Griffin, Sexuality Insights, together with her colleague Deirdre Betson, Sexual Health and Relationships Education (SHAREIreland), facilitated a number of workshops on consent, disclosures, SVH and activism, while LINC, a local advocacy group, delivered LGBTI+ Awareness Training for the Workplace. The uptake among staff was so encouraging, and it is clear that people are invested in this whole area.
I have had many lightbulb moments throughout this whole experience, from participating in the PROPEL Working Group and networking with the other members, to attending the NUIG Active* Consent workshops and undertaking our own in-house training. I was also fortunate to trial the UCC Bystander Intervention training, and the UK-based Epigeum workshop. These programmes gave me an appreciation of the critical need for support, not just for survivors of Sexual Violence and Harassment, but also for the people to whom disclosures are made.
The types and degrees of abuse, from supposedly harmless wolf whistles, all the way through to rape, and everything in between, have been a revelation. It is distressing to realise members of the LGBTI+ community, in particular non-binary and trans people, are so vulnerable to abuse.
It is frustrating to recognise that many survivors of sexual abuse aren’t believed, or don’t disclose their abuse for fear of this. It is heartbreaking to know that many survivors are blamed for their abuse or, even worse, that they blame themselves.
And yet, in spite of everything, in spite of all the negatives, I feel a genuine sense of hope for the future, that great things can be achieved collectively.
I believe what Dr O’Brien stated at the launch: “It is important to acknowledge that our understanding of the problems of sexual violence and harassment in higher education is still developing, and the best means of preventing and responding to these issues are consequently also in evolution. Rather than the end, this Report is just the beginning.”
I was honoured to be a part of this beginning and look forward to being part of its evolution.
The Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) Charter encourages and recognises commitment to advancing the careers of women and trans staff and students in academia and research, professional and support roles. Cork Institute of Technology, in collaboration with IT Tralee, achieved a bronze award in November 2019 and is currently applying for a legacy award as Munster Technological University.
The THEA PROPEL Report can be downloaded from www.thea.ie/PROPEL/