Our work on gender-based violence is about giving students power and control

Karli Wagener is Wellbeing Officer 2020/21 at the University of Leicester Students' Union


Megan Robertson is Campaigns and Democracy Coordinator at the University of Leicester Students’ Union

Despite decades of studies, rallies, simple (if maybe expensive at times) asks, and student activism to change things, gender-based violence remains a significant issue on campus.

Tackling it has been a key issue for me since I was a student here at the University of Leicester – it was here that I campaigned alongside other students and for my role in order to support survivors like me.

And so as universities review their practice against the the OfS statement of expectations on harassment and sexual misconduct, I thought it would be helpful to outline some of the things we’ve done, and explain why we have adopted those approaches.

It starts there

The fundamental change that is needed starts a long time before university. To really address gender-based violence, we need to change the way we educate and bring up our children. It requires us to acknowledge and unlearn biases. We need to teach consent as fundamental.

And by consent, I mean teaching everyone from a young age that their body is theirs and only they can decide what their body does, who touches it or hugs them and how to say no. No being a full sentence.

Higher education can be home to many new ideas as well as outlooks. But by the time students reach this level they are usually already well immersed in biases and behaviours that they may not even realise are unacceptable. Hence, education has to be part of inductions into university and well before it.

What we can do is intervene when students enrol. In many cases this is someone’s first experience living with others and gaining independence in activities like drinking and joining groups. This is why now I have pushed the University that consent and bystander training are compulsory for every student, at the start of every year of study.

It stops here

Despite the training being there, we need to start offering more education on setting boundaries, respecting others, and supporting those around us. This isn’t as simple as teaching students what a chore rota looks like – it’s about spotting the signs when someone needs support or learning to not pressure students into activities they are uncomfortable with.

This includes consent, communication, and safe sex. And that needs to improve too with less focus on cis-gendered heterosexual sex and penetration or ejaculation to pleasure for everyone, normalising talking about vaginal masturbation and that sex is not just for procreation, and it can and should be fun for everyone.

By improving education and communication amongst communities of students (such as seminar, group, halls) we further improve the chances of students influencing others and help hold them accountable for inappropriate language or behaviour.

“Safety” seminars should acknowledge first that anything that happens to you is on the perpetrator and no one else. The language around “staying safe” needs to be changed to “help you feel safer”, and safety talks should also focus on how, especially male students can change their behaviours to help others feel safer (eg walk where others can see you, change the side of the street, don’t walk close behind other students ect).

Without proper accountability, “casual” harassment breeds a culture that is okay with people being raped and murdered whilst walking home. It shouldn’t take someone dying and being reported in the national press for society to push for change.

Supporting activism

At Leicester, our previous President, Mia Nembhard got Martha Jephcott and Empowered Campus to review our procedures and make them more victim focused. And our #MeTooOnCampus activists campaigned for “good night out” training for venue staff, called for more counsellors (specifically those specialised in SV Trauma), and held talks to educate students.

Our support team worked with me to create a survivor guide to empower survivors to make educated decisions on where to go for support – and personal alarms can be picked up from different locations around campus. Our previous Sports Officer, Hannah Belcher, did some great work ensuring high-visibility strips were available for people running after dark.

Following on from this initiative, our current Sports Officer, Georgia Henton, has worked with the university’s Sport and Active Life department to incorporate jogging sessions into the free and accessible “Let’s Do Leicester” program, as well as continuing to provide the high-visibility equipment and panic alarms.

We have stickers all over campus reminding students that “silence is not consent” and “no means no”. In our toilets we have “ask before unwrapping” stickers, educating and reminding students that taking a condom off without consent is a form of rape.

The union also lobbied local MPs and the council over safety within Victoria Park – a large green space next to the university. Our university SV team, Standing Together, rolled out bystander and consent training which is compulsory for all students at the start of every school year. These are all actions we are taking to improve the safety and support of our student survivors.

Georgia is also running the “Be the Influence” Campaign, for which she created different training sessions with the support of our President Rhiannon and activities department. These include a level 2 Consent and Bystander training (which builds on the compulsory level 1 training which all students receive) as well as training about LGBTQ+ Allyship, Misogyny and more. This is to help change the culture in clubs and societies and make them safer and more inclusive.

Feedback from these workshops has been extremely positive – and Georgia is currently working on how to integrate these sessions into compulsory training for all committees at the beginning of the next academic year.

Nic Farmer, our Liberation Officer ran a panel on Identity, Liberation and Sexual Health with Trade Sexual Health Clinic and Prepster and is currently planning an event on the Sexulasation of LGBTQ+ People as well as a Queer Sex Ed Class and much more for LGBTQ+ history month. His work is driving important and needed education around the intersectionality of Sexual Violence and it’s impacts on different liberation groups.

For SV Awareness Week this year, student volunteers took part in a photo project called SexPress Yourself. It aims to tear down false narratives and educate students with accompanying texts explaining different aspects of SV.

Power and control

I’m really proud of all we’ve done – but it’s not just a collection of activities. Something underpins all of it that can be challenging for the best of us.

Given the prevalence of the problem, it’s likely that we all know a perpetrator. Whose behaviours are we blind to, who are we afraid to call out in fear of ruining a friendship, and whose actions we do we tolerate because, well, you know what they’re like.

That silence is part of the problem – and we can all play a big part in this change. In the end, this type of violence is all about power and control.

We as survivors shouldn’t have to fight to be in control over our own bodies or fight to regain the power that was taken from us forcefully. It should be on the ones who chose to take that power from us. Right now, we have the power to change, and it starts right here.

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