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Sexual harassment, assaults at Aussie universities hit ‘unacceptable rates’ - survey

Over a half of university students in Australia were sexually harassed in 2016, with one in every four students experiencing the troubling trend in a university or travelling to and from college, a new survey by the country’s Human Rights Commission (AHRC) revealed.

“Incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment are occurring at unacceptable rates at Australian universities,” being “far too prevalent in university settings as they are in the broader community,” Kate Jenkins, AHRC’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, said in the paper, released on Tuesday.

Over 30,000 students were questioned as part of the survey, which the Commission carried out on the request of 39 Australian universities.

The researchers found that 51 percent of Australian students faced sexual harassment at least once last year.

One in four students were sexually harassed in a “university setting,” including on campus, travelling to and from college as well as at off-campus events organized or endorsed by universities.

The highest rate – 38 percent – of harassment was recorded at Australian National University and Bond University.

The AHRC also said that 6.9 percent of students were sexually assaulted in 2015 and 2016 on at least one occasion.

The University of New England, the Australian National University and the Charles Sturt University recorded the highest number of assaults, standing between 4 and 3.3 percent.

"While anybody can experience sexual assault or sexual harassment, it is clear from the data that women at university experience these behaviors at disproportionately higher rates than men,” Jenkins underlined.

"This adds weight to the body of evidence that highlights disturbing rates of sexual violence against women in Australia," she added.

The females were three times as likely to be harassed than men and two times more likely to become victims of sexual assault, the paper revealed.

Some 87 percent of victims of sexual assault at university didn’t report the incident, saying they weren’t provided with guidance on how to respond in such situations. 

And 94 percent of those who were sexually harassed have not lodged a formal complaint either.

The Commission came up with nine recommendations for the Australian universities in order to tackle the widespread sexual harassment and assault. 

These include changing attitudes to the issue and ensuring a systematic review of the response by the institutions.

The Australian National University (ANU), which was among the leaders in both sexual harassment and assault, said that it’ll implement all of the recommendations.

“On behalf of the university I want to start by saying sorry,” Brian Schmidt, ANU Vice-chancellor, said as cited by Australian ABC broadcaster.

"The stories told by survivors are shocking… Our first priority right now must be to support survivors and all those affected by sexual harassment or sexual assault. 

The shock must be met with action,” Schmidt said.

The National Student Union president, Sophie Johnston, acknowledged that her organization “failed to provide victims with the support they deserve and, in doing so, we have silenced so many individuals and denied them recognition of their trauma,” the Herald Sun reported.

Following the AHRC report, Universities Australia, a body overseeing the university sector, was quick to draft a 10-point plan to tackle sexual harassment and assault.

"We have listened, and we will act," Margaret Gardner, Universities Australia chair, said, adding that a 24/7 support line for victims and additional training to staff will be provided.

"We send a strong and clear message today that these behaviors are not acceptable. 

Not on our campuses - and not in Australian society," Gardner said as cited by AFP.


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