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May 20, 2019 | by  | in News |
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Draft Sexual Harassment Policy Consultation Seeing Mixed Responses

The consultation process on a stand-alone ‘Sexual Harassment Prevention Policy’ is underway at Victoria, with praise and criticism for both the policy and the process.

Salient attended student forums held at Kelburn, Pipitea and Te Aro campuses in early May. A separate forum was also held for staff members. Provost Professor Wendy Larner chaired the discussions.

 

Responses to the policy itself have varied, with some elements gaining positive responses and others negative.

 

Many students who attended the forums praised the policy’s distinction between disclosures and formal complaints. VUWSA’s Welfare Vice President Rhianna Morar also thought this change was a positive one, as it “gives survivors more autonomy” on the issue.

 

A key area of concern was the proposed name of the policy. Several students pointed out that the policy does not commit students or staff to any preventative education or training, despite “prevention” in the title.

Jahla Lawrence, a sexual violence academic and Co-President of Victoria University Feminist Organisation and sexual violence academic Jahla Lawrence, told ^Salient that the term ‘sexual harassment’ does not reflect academic, legal, or activist language.

 

She suggested that ‘sexually harmful behaviours’ would instead encompass all forms of sexual harm and avoid downplaying the significance of such experiences.

Similarly, the draft policy defines “sexual harassment” as behaviour which is “significant enough to have a harmful effect on an individual’s study or employment environment, study or job performance or satisfaction”.

Some students felt this did not capture all consequences of sexual misconduct, particularly ones which are not easily observable.

Morar indicated that consultation with clubs and the Student Equity and Diversity Committee reflected concerns about the policy’s definitions. Specifically, that  the variety of qualifications on what constituted sexual harassment limited the scope of the policy.

 

VUWSA’s consultation suggested that a behavioural, rather than “legalistic” approach to definitions would be preferable. This would mean that instead of limited and prescribed definitions, the definition section should be framed around survivors’ experiences.

 

Morar illustrated this with a proposal from VUWSA’s own consultation, that sexually harmful behaviour be defined as “what the victim or survivor says it is”. Morar acknowledged this would be practically difficult to apply.

When asked if the policy accounts for sexuality and diversity amongst students and staff, Larner acknowledged the rate of sexual harassment was higher against certain vulnerable communities. The policy does not explicitly recognise this, however.

On the policy’s consultation processes themselves, Larner said the university is “committed to developing this policy in partnership with […] staff and students”. She also reported a high quality of questions and comments from both students and staff.

 

However, the student forums were poorly attended. Morar said that there were approximately seven students at the Pipitea forum, around 15 at Kelburn’s, and nobody at Te Aro’s.

Morar was critical of the consultation process in general, describing the student forums as “unhelpful”, and comparing them to the “also poorly attended” name change forums.

She suggested that the university needed to go further than just using student forums and VUWSA to consult.

When asked about the written submission period, Morar said she was very happy the period had been extended. However, she said there needed to be more work done to get students engaged enough to actually submit on the policy.

She pointed out that VUWSA had done work on promoting the consultation to the student body, but with limited resources it was questionable whether VUWSA “should be doing the university’s job for them”.

Both VUWSA and the university encourage anyone who would like to submit feedback on the draft policy to do so. The submission deadline is May 31. Until then, you can make submissions or ask questions at policy-help@vuw.ac.nz.

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