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Preventing sexual violence in universities: using evidence to guide action

Preventing sexual violence in universities: using evidence to guide action

Pannelists on stage at a conference

By Krista Seddon, Director, Prevention of Violence Against Women, DVRCV

On 27 February I was lucky enough to present at the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference on the topic of Preventing sexual violence: using evidence to guide action, alongside Patty Kinnersly, CEO of Our Watch, Pam Thorburn, Director Student Academic Services at Victoria University of Wellington, and Angela Powditch, student at Southern Cross University, recent law graduate and human rights advocate.

I started my career as a secondary school teacher, so professional learning with a practical element is very important to me. As such, I used my presentation to talk about eight suggestions that I believe are non-negotiable for enabling effective primary prevention work in large institutions such as universities.

For context, my team and I at DVRCV are privileged to support and interact with many prevention practitioners working across a range of different settings including workplaces, schools, TAFEs and universities. Through our work we hear stories, challenges, frustrations and experiences of doing primary prevention work. It’s from this basis that I make these suggestions:

1. Have a shared understanding of what primary prevention looks like

Prevention tackles the underlying causes of violence whereas response addresses the impacts of violence after it occurs and aims to stop further violence from happening. Prevention is often confused with early intervention and response.

Suggestion: Start by developing a shared understanding across all key stakeholders of what primary prevention looks like and what it means for your university or workplace.

2. Ensure a whole-of-university approach

A colleague working at a university in Victoria said to me recently, “I can't make a difference by myself, or even with my colleague. As much as we work hard, we can't make a difference by ourselves. If we have the staff, the students, the vice-chancellor, the senior leadership group, then together we can make a difference”.

Any culture change activity takes time and has challenges, and the prevention of family violence and violence against women in universities is no exception. I’m always of the view that if there is a shared understanding of the issues or challenges then we can tackle them head-on.

Many universities are already well along this journey, but for this kind of change to take place, we need to see a vision for change that is shared across the leadership of the university and amongst staff and students. While often it may only be one or two staff members responsible for implementing this work, for it to be successful it needs to have leadership, buy-in and support from across the whole university.

Suggestion: Leadership needs to articulate a whole-of-university approach and shared strategy that has buy-in across parties and is adequately funded.

3. A long-term strategy with a staged approach

Building on my last point, one-off activities are not enough. While communication campaigns, events and one-off training build a groundswell of support and awareness of the issue of violence against women, for this work to be successful, you need careful and long-term planning and a staged approach to implementing activities.

Suggestion: Ensure you have a long-term strategy that articulates a staged approach. This is one of the key things that show buy-in for the sort of cultural change that’s required for prevention to ultimately achieve a reduction in prevalence.

4. Connection to response

Primary prevention activities increase the likelihood of people disclosing that they’ve experienced violence. This is because people feel safe to talk about their experiences because those around them are publicly talking about preventing violence. We must plan and be prepared for an increase in disclosures that can come from staff, students, and the broader university community.

To do prevention work safely, it’s essential to have a system in place to ensure victim survivors get the support they need if they disclose. This involves:

  • Making sure that the people leading prevention activities have the skills to provide a supportive first response and refer people to specialist supports
  • Ensuring your university has appropriate organisational policies and processes to guide a best-practice response
  • Ensuring existing services and student support are adequately trained and supported to respond to sexual assault and disclosures of violence against women and either have a specialist worker on site or a partnership with a specialist sexual assault or family violence service.

Suggestion: When designing and planning a large scale prevention initiative within your university, consider the implications for victim survivors and perpetrators who may participate in prevention activity. Ensure response services within the university are funded and set up to meet increasing demand, and work collaboratively to embed specialist response approaches within mainstream settings to support the safe and effective management of this demand.

5. Partnerships and collaboration strengthen this work

Violence against women is a complex, multi-layered social issue and partnerships and collaboration are vital to ensure the necessary complexity and nuance in approaches to address it. Ending violence against women requires large-scale, long-term efforts and everyone has a role to play in preventing it.

Partnerships can take a range of different forms, including seeking input and advice from the specialist prevention and response sectors, like the recently announced partnership between Universities Australia and Our Watch.

Other examples of partnership could be through co-designing strategies with key stakeholders such as students. One colleague at working at a university in Melbourne said, working with our students – our student unions, postgrad and undergrad students – is really crucial because the student unions and the student leaders are looked up to. They are influencers with other students, so it's really important for them to be involved in leading this work”.

Suggestion: Communicate regularly and engage deeply with stakeholders, especially students, and partner with the specialist prevention and response sector to strengthen this work.

6. Plan for backlash and resistance

Backlash and resistance around this work is a major challenge for us. We see this particularly in the education space. Unfortunately we see this from some people in leadership, but we also see backlash in training rooms, in surveys like the recent 50/50 survey which showed that over 40% of men thought gender equality meant they were worse off at work, and we see it from the media and the general public.

A colleague who has worked on prevention initiatives at Monash University for a number of years said, “one of the strategies is to find allies within the university. Change in this space always happens more slowly than you would like to see; it can be disillusioning to work within a system where you experience pushback and you don’t feel like you are gaining ground at the pace you would like. Staying connected to people in the university that share your goals and values to the work is incredibly important”.

Suggestion: Recognise that resistance is inevitable and that many consider it a sign that their prevention work is effectively challenging the gendered drivers of violence. Planning for proactive, positive communications strategies should be incorporated into all large-scale prevention initiatives, as well as capacity building for implementation staff, communications and leadership to respond to and mitigate resistance.

7. One size doesn’t fit all

There is vast diversity within a university. One size does not fit all. When planning for primary prevention work within your university you need to consider how it is tailored for different contexts and people. This can mean tailoring content, activities and strategies for different audiences, such as adapting messaging for students from ethnically diverse backgrounds. It could also mean designing strategies to work with LGBTI students and staff, or it could be working with stakeholders on how to reach people working in rural and regional areas.

Suggestion: When designing a large-scale prevention activity, ensure the most fundamental elements can be adapted for implementation in all contexts, to meet the needs of different audiences. Evaluate any tailoring and ensure that the tailored approach aligns to the prevention evidence base.

8. Don’t water down the conceptual framework – this is a gendered issue

Most importantly, we need to remember that violence against women is a gendered issue. There are risks around watering down our conceptual framework, which naturally happens when sectors grow and work becomes more mainstream. When embedding violence prevention into a mainstream or universal system like a university, we need to be mindful of the risk of undermining the feminist approach that underpins this work. Violence against women is a gendered issue and the evidence tells us that promoting respect, safety or ethics without a gendered lens will not reduce its prevalence. The only thing that will ultimately achieve that is designing prevention activities that address the four gendered drivers of violence.

Suggestion: Large-scale prevention initiatives must specifically target the gendered drivers of violence against women in order to prevent it. Watering down this approach will not achieve a reduction in violence against women.


So what are the non-negotiables for enabling effective prevention work in large institutions such as universities?

  1. Have a shared understanding of what primary prevention looks like
  2. Leadership and a whole-of-university approach
  3. A long-term strategy with a staged approach
  4. Connection to response
  5. This work is done better in partnership and collaboration
  6. Plan for backlash and resistance
  7. One size doesn’t fit all
  8. Don’t water down the conceptual framework – this is a gendered issue

We’re always keen to hear about your experience, so get in touch if you’d like to talk more about how DVRCV can support your work in this area: prevention@dvrcv.org.au.