Scottish students mobilise to fight campus gender violence

When Shuwanna Aaron was walking home late one night after a day spent studying at Edinburgh University she heard two men walking behind her. They started shouting insults and then one yelled 'look at that massive Afro' before flicking his cigarette at her hair.

Emily Drouet took her own life while in an abusive relationship with a fellow Aberdeen student. Picture: PA

Aaron, now working as women’s officer for NUS Scotland, gives this graphic example to illustrate the varied nature of GBV (gender based violence) which is on the increase on campuses across Scotland.

GBV can range from “locker room talk” – calling women a “whore” and “slut” – to stalking, domestic abuse, psychological harm, racism, homophobic abuse, rape and forced marriage.

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Today sees the start of NUS Scotland’s 16 Days of Action Campaign Against GBV, running in parallel with the UN’s campaign to tackle such corrosive verbal and physical attacks. Violence on campus was highlighted by Fiona Drouet who campaigned for change after her 18-year-old daughter Emily, an Aberdeen University student, took her own life in March 2016 while in an abusive relationship with her student boyfriend.

Shuwanna Aaron of the NUS has experienced sexist abuse at Edinburgh University. Picture: Neil Hanna

NUS Scotland research found one in five students suffer sexual violence or harassment in their first week at university.

Fourteen per cent of women students had experienced serious sexual violence, the majority carried out by fellow students. Only 4 per cent reported it to their institution.

Aaron said: “GBV is about a system of power. Men have access to it and can exploit it. Anyone who can be ‘othered’ or ‘disempowered’ can be the target of someone looking to assert their power.

“We actually sit down with survivors to see what they need, for example, special arrangements for doing assignments so they can stay at university.”

She added that support needed to be tailored to the individual.

“Not all agencies have the same level of understanding... It’s important to understand trauma has a different impact on people and to ensure culturally sensitive support.”

NUS Scotland is now spreading best practice contained in the Scottish Government’s Equally Safe in Higher Education toolkit.

It encourages actions such as staff and student awareness training, scenarios incorporating ‘bystander responsibility’, lobbying and developing partnerships with agencies.

Sandy Brindley, national co-ordinator of Rape Crisis Scotland, which runs three GBV drop-in sessions weekly as a pilot project at Strathclyde University, said it had seen significant demand. All students should have access to this kind of service, no matter where they study, she said.

“Last year, a rape survivor’s sister was able to access support immediately through her university as they had a dedicated service, but the rape survivor herself was on a waiting list for four months because her university didn’t have such a service.”

Universities minister Richard Lochhead , said: “Earlier this year we launched a toolkit to give universities practical guidance to tackle gender-based violence on campus and take forward the principles set out in the #emilytest campaign set up by Fiona Drouet, in memory of her daughter Emily.

“It is being adapted for colleges and we have commissioned the University of Strathclyde to organise start of term workshops to inform future campaigns and prevention work and increase awareness and understanding.

“I am encouraged by the response from our universities and colleges condemning gender-based violence and giving staff and students the support they need and confidence to report unacceptable behaviour.”