CONTENT WARNING: This story discusses sexual violence.
Two Australian National University (ANU) student groups held their sixth consecutive annual rally this week against what they claim is an ongoing crisis of sexual violence at the university.
“When I was finishing high school in 2018 and telling people I planned to move to Canberra to study at ANU, they asked me why,” former ANU resident Phoebe Denham said.
“Had I not seen the reports? Had I not seen the statistics? How could I possibly be safe if I move to ANU? Indeed, from day dot, it was horror story after horror story.”
Phoebe is also women’s officer for ANU Students’ Association, which co-organised the August rally of about 50 to 70 people on the university’s campus with ANU Women’s Department.
“What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now. How are we going to get it? Fight for it. When student safety is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back,” protesters chanted.
Similar rallies have been held every August since 2017, when the Australian Human Rights Commission released its landmark ‘Change the Course’ report into sexual violence at Australian universities. ANU students reported the highest rate of sexual harassment at university in 2016 (38 per cent) and the second highest rate of sexual assault at university in 2015-16 (3.5 per cent).
More recently, a 2021 survey by the Social Research Centre on sexual assault and harassment among university students showed the university remained well above the national average.
The survey found 14.5 per cent of ANU students reported being sexually harassed and 4.5 per cent reported being sexually assaulted in a university context in the past 12 months.
In a university context since commencing study, the ANU reported the highest rate of sexual harassment (26.1 per cent) and the second highest rate of sexual assault (12.3 per cent).
Yet a pamphlet handed out at the rally claimed many students still did not understand the processes for making reports about sexual violence or the support available to them.
A university spokesperson noted ANU’s achievements to date but said the university supported the student union’s action and agreed there was still “much work to be done”.
“We must remain proactive and work together to create environments where individuals feel safe, respected, and empowered in their academic pursuits,” the spokesperson said.
“We are committed to building an inclusive community ready and willing to enact meaningful changes that will make our university a safer and more supportive environment for all.”
The spokesperson pointed to the Student Safety and Wellbeing Plan, which lists 11 university-wide actions taken since 2022 to address sexual violence. They also highlighted ANU’s partnership with the Gendered Violence Research Network to undertake a review of the university’s Sexual Violence Prevention Strategy and help to develop the next Student Safety and Wellbeing Plan.
Phoebe agreed progress had been made but said other actions by ANU, like increasing residential hall lockout fees from $15 to $100, were detrimental to student safety.
“If a student gets locked out [after hours] and they’re in a crisis, they have to weigh up whether they can afford to pay that $100,” Phoebe said.
“Alternatively, they have to explain that crisis to a staff member to seek a fee waiver or worse still, sleep in a common space or another person’s room.
“I think that really poses a hugely increased danger to students and on top of all that, there was no student consultation before the increase was announced.”
A pamphlet handed out at the rally said students were most comfortable reporting lockouts to senior residents but their role and scholarship was under threat from a proposal to replace them on overnight shifts with paid staff.
“This is part of the ANU’s pattern of coming up with its own bright ideas when it’s convenient that to do not match student demands or experiences,” Phoebe said.
“We end up with subpar fixes to the problems that we have been experiencing. Things have changed, they’ve improved even, but those changes are a result of pressure from students.
“That is why being here today to show the ANU that their work is not done and must continue is one of the most important and effective things that we can do as a community.”
If this story has raised any concerns for you, 1800RESPECT, the national 24-hour sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line, can be contacted on 1800 737 732. Help and support are also available through the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre on 02 6247 2525, the Domestic Violence Crisis Service ACT 02 6280 0900, Lifeline 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline 1800 551 800. In an emergency, call triple zero.