This article is more than 5 years old

Doing something different to tackle sexual harassment

Ruth Wilkinson and Rory Murray introduce the groundbreaking way that Kent Union works with local venues to combat sexual harassment.
This article is more than 5 years old

Ruth Wilkinson is a Community Fundraiser and a former Kent Union President.

Rory Murray currently works in public affairs, and is a former Kent Union president.

A night out is fraught with risks; you might lose your phone, spend way too much money, slip over on a spilled drink, vomit in a taxi on the way home, have an argument with your friend, or forget where you left your house keys. One thing that almost certainly will happen, through no fault of your own, is that you will be sexually harassed.

That’s the reality for over 50% of young women who have said they are consistently harassed on a night out. And that’s just one piece of research. Realistically, it’s probably more. Society has a problem, and the student movement has a proud track record of taking on societal problems headfirst.

Over the last few years Kent Union full time officers have delivered a groundbreaking campaign led by students for the benefit of the whole community, that will change the face of sexual harassment in the night time economy for good.

The main body of our campaign has a two pronged approach.

The carrot, and the stick

The stick is the wonk stuff, the geeky bit. We lobbied our local councils (Canterbury and Medway) to change their licensing policy so that every license holder would have a licensing obligation to actually tackle sexual harassment on their premises. Hopefully it will never have to be done, but if a premises decides not to play ball in making the night time economy safer, they could have their license reviewed and ultimately withdrawn.

We’d been shrugged off too many times. Students had told us that they don’t report harassment because when they do it’s never taken seriously. That the staff have more important things to worry about. And the gropers and harassers are left free to roam the dancefloor (and beyond) unfettered.

Things moved surprisingly quickly with the councils once we got them onside; There was only seven months of consultation in Canterbury City Council, following which they voted to pass the new licensing policy in April 2017! The first council in the entirety of the UK (nay the world!) to pass such policy. And Medway Council were nipping at their heels as the second council to do so. With nearly 40,000 students calling Canterbury their home and around 10,000 in Medway, both councils recognised they had to do something.

Here’s a nice thing the Leader of Canterbury City Council, Simon Cook, said about the project:

This is absolutely the best example of a ground-up proposition; it’s come from Kent Union, it’s spread throughout the licensing community, it’s been put in by our licensing policy, helped out by all our partners who work across the board…and I can only pay tribute to the work that Kent Union have done in kicking this off in the first place.

And in our SU offices we did a happy little dance then we got cracking with delivering the meat of the project, actually making a difference on the ground.

So – to the carrot…

After a year of running on seed funding from partners, the wonderful Kent Police Crime Commissioner awarded us £12,300 to deliver a training and accreditation scheme so that we could pull together some best practice training and deliver it on the ground to the staff actually in a position to tackle harassment and challenge behaviours. Once trained we’re asking premises to edit and add to their internal policies so that at all new staff inductions they know just how seriously their employer takes harassment, and know exactly what to do when something happens. We’re asking them to take on the Ask For Angela scheme, a wonderful initiative coined in Leicester, where patrons can ask for “Angela” at the bar as a discreet way to say they need help.

After a premises is accredited they get a load of materials and promotional items to display about their premises. Shouting loud and proud that they do not tolerate sexual harassment, and that any reports will be taken seriously. We are also building a brilliant interactive map to show to students where the “Zero Tolerance” premises are, so it’s also a bit of free advertising!

Why wouldn’t you get involved?

The engagement by premises has been one of the best bits. We’ve seen even the most gruff and grumpy licence holders have lightbulb moments during the training (which has had five star reviews by everyone who’s done it), and now some of these licence holders are our best ambassadors!

The success of the project has always depended on the involvement of the partners. It’s fair to say that in the early stages it took some time for them to realise the potential of the project. Today the project has 10 partners including two Universities, the Councils, two Students’ Unions, the local Business Improvement District and supportive license holders. A true partnership project is never easy, but neither is changing society for the better.

The University of Kent and Kent Union are also delivering further amazing initiatives to tackle sexual violence including an online anonymous reporting system, compulsory consent training, bystander training for committee members (and anyone else who wants to do it), and awareness raising through a powerful film shown at inductions. There’s still a way to go for the sector but acknowledgement of the issue and appetite to take action is so crucial.

As for us, we’ve both left Zero Tolerance in the capable hands of our successors and have walked into the full time officer retirement to find new challenges. But the project forges forward, and we have ambitions to set up as an independent organisation and start delivering our training and accreditation scheme throughout Kent, and potentially the rest of the UK.

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