End Rape on Campus Australia Launches Petition

WORDS BY LAMYA RAHMAN

Students across the country have signed an online petition calling on Universities Australia to fund a dedicated counselling hotline for those affected by sexual violence in university contexts.

The Fair Agenda petition, launched last Sunday afternoon by advocacy group End Rape on Campus Australia (EROCA), is a response to the ongoing stress on university counselling services. 

The petition identifies waiting periods of up to four weeks, an absence of specialised treatment, and refused support altogether as the main problems students have with the existing services. 

It goes on to predict these services will further buckle after the Australian Human Rights Commission delivers their report on campus sexual assault on August 1 this year. “When [the report is delivered], it is expected the attending media coverage will stir up dormant trauma in university communities, triggering a deluge in disclosure, as was witnessed last year when the survey was first launched,” said Nina Funnell, co-organiser of the petition and member of EROCA, in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article. “This second wave of disclosure will likely place university counselling services under additional strain, meaning survivors may face even longer wait times.”

The proposed hotline, which the petition claims will alleviate the incoming pressure, is a national, university-specific 1-800 number, accessible 24/7, and run by Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia (RDVSA). If implemented, RDVSA estimates the cost to Universities Australia to be $1.3 million a year, or $34, 000 at each university -  a relatively modest price for a service that will be available to all students, current and former, in whatever age bracket.  

Katie Thorburn, the University of Sydney SRC’s co-Women’s Officer, says the SRC’s Women’s Department “unanimously support this call for a specialised hotline.”

“Usyd has the opportunity to show that “leadership for good starts here” by leading the charge in ensuring safety to survivors,” says Thorburn, referencing a 2015 university marketing campaign, which, among others, had listed former student activist and leading feminist Anne Summers as an example of positive leadership. “I implore Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence to throw his public support behind the call for a specialist trauma informed hotline run by RDVSA.”

In May 2016, the Vice-Chancellor had affirmed in an email that the university has a zero tolerance policy on any form of sexual assault or sexual harassment on campus. The affirmation, which had come after a string of bad press, specifically the national media coverage on Wesley college students releasing a 'slut-shaming’ journal, was soon followed up by the launch of the university’s ‘Safer Communities’ page on sexual harassment and safety on campus, which details avenues students can go to for help. 

Yet Thorburn says there are still no resources at university specifically available to survivors.“Survivors can access the SRC or SUPRA caseworkers for advice on managing studies, and there is a specialist sexual assault clinic located at RPA on Missenden Road. However none of them are provided by the university.”

Another available resource, the Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which the university does provide, is, according to students, ill equipped to handle sexual assault related trauma. 

“CAPS counsellors are not specialised in the kind of support I needed,” says fourth-year university student Rachel*, who had an unsatisfactory experience seeking advice at CAPS after she was sexually assaulted at a university party last year. “I didn’t know that at the time, though. I wasn’t referred, and had to take the initiative to try elsewhere. It felt very tiring and dismissing to have to do this all on my own, it didn’t feel like anyone cared.”

Rachel, who ended up receiving ongoing care at an off-campus health clinic, is one of many survivors disillusioned with CAPS.

“It’s not [the CAPS counsellors’] fault,” says another student, who wished to remain anonymous. “They’re well intentioned, and know they can’t really do much with the training they have. I also tried to book an appointment right before exams, which was the worst because I waited a week to be told to go somewhere else.”

In addition to these problems, Thorburn identifies another ongoing issue with CAPS. “The services can only be accessed by ‘currently enrolled students’. This means students who have dropped out of their studies because of the trauma of assault cannot access support services.” 

“Having [the proposed 1800 hotline] will allow access to students who have had to drop out of their studies due to the effects of trauma.” 

She goes on to say that the SRC Women’s Department have been fighting the issue of sexual assault on campus for decades, to little response from the university. “After every bad press - which is how [the university] treats it - of their inadequate response to sexual violence, [the university] responds “we have a zero tolerance to sexual assault” or “we take issues of sexual harassment and assault very seriously”. 

“If [the university] did take sexual violence seriously, we wouldn’t still be advocating for preventative consent education, and appropriate responses to sexual harassment and assault. They’d already be in place and students and survivors would be studying safely.”

“Endorsing this hotline,” Thorburn stresses, “is one of many actions that [the university] can take to show they do take sexual assault seriously and really do care about their students.”

The petition is available to sign here: http://www.fairagenda.org/uni_counselling

Pulp Editors