16 Ways College Students Can Transform a Culture of Violence Against Women on Campus

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Every year, we are pleased to welcome a guest “16 For 16” article from our partner, Breakthrough – a global human rights organisation working to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. Their cutting-edge multimedia campaigns, community mobilisation, agenda setting, and leadership training equip men and women worldwide to challenge the status quo and take bold action for the dignity, equality, and justice of all.

This year, Breakthrough shares a list of 16 actions that college students can take to prevent violence against women on college campuses.

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Transforming the culture of violence against women on campus starts with challenging the cultural norms that lead to sexual violence. By challenging these beliefs, we can get to the root of the problem and make sure that responses to violence are supportive.

Below are 16 ways to prevent and challenge violence against women on campus geared towards creating a campus culture in which all students feel safe and respected.

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Action Recommendation #1: Understand that violence on campus exists on a spectrum. It’s not just physical violence such as unwanted sexual contact, attempted sexual assault, and rape. Catcalling, stalking, spreading rumors, cyber-bullying–these things are violence too. Violence happens in intimate relationships and between people who are just friends. Recognising these various forms of violence will help you see when they happen, set clear boundaries for yourself, and help people who are in trouble.

Action Recommendation #2: Recognise that there’s no one “type” of person who commits violence. It’s not just men committing violence against women. The majority — but not all — of reported cases on campus involve male-perpetrated violence against women. All cases need to be taken seriously. The goal is creating a culture of safety for every student, no matter who they are.

Action Recommendation #3: College is all about learning. Statistics show that 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault while they’re at college. The first few weeks of the semester are when a majority of rapes are committed, often against first-year students. This period of time is a big issue facing students, parents, and faculty alike. It’s important to understand that this is everyone’s problem, and we need everyone to be part of the solution.

Action Recommendation #4: Say “I believe you.” Don’t participate in victim-blaming or casting doubt on survivors’ experiences. Instead, challenge victim-blaming. Be aware of the resources available to survivors, like campus wellness centers and rape crisis centers on your campus and in the surrounding community so that you can point friends and peers in the right direction. By supporting someone in this way, you can support survivors and make it clear that people who commit sexual violence need to be held accountable for their choices.

Action Recommendation #5: Consider your language. Think about the words and expressions used on your campus–for women? For men? For sex? Find ways to use language that encourages a culture in which people aren’t harassed or intimidated–and discourage language that demeans or excludes people.

Action Recommendation #6: Demand accountability at every level. Call it out when someone makes comments that are sexist, homophobic, racist, or transphobic. Or when you witness catcalling or bullying. We all can be the person who makes it clear when someone has crossed the line. Urge faculty and administrators to be proactive about prevention at your school. Don’t underestimate the power of student activism.

Action Recommendation #7: Take action across all of your communities. If you’re involved in extracurricular activities, a faith practice, internships, on a team, in a Greek chapter and anything else—support gender equity as a core value of your group. Make those spaces as inclusive and comfortable for everyone as possible.

Action Recommendation #8: Consent. Consent. Consent can be hard to navigate, especially with all the pressures that come with being on campus. So ask for it. Respect the answer you’re given. Consent can be sexy–but even when it isn’t, it’s absolutely necessary.

Action Recommendation #9: Fill in the gaps of your sex education. Unfortunately, many people don’t get adequate, accurate, informative, and non-judgmental sexual education–or any education at all around healthy relationships and sex whether in school or at home. There are resources on your campus that will help fill in the gaps we all have. Use what the resources you find to set examples of healthy relationships, ask questions, find answers, and have those difficult or challenging conversations about what consensual and healthy sex and relationships should look like!

Action Recommendation #10: Support and create representative media! Be aware of and critical of the media you consume. There is a lot of media that glorifies and exaggerates what college is all about. Much of our media does a poor job depicting women with any complexity beyond being an object of sexual desire to be won, and rarely (if ever) addresses issues of race, sexual orientation in a positive way. But there is a lot of media that does it right and deserves your support. The media you consume now does not have to be the media you create tomorrow. And whether you’re making posters about consent, or you’re creating a student film, do better than Hollywood. Harness your own creativity to create media that doesn’t support or make light of violence against women!

Action Recommendation #11: Foster healthy relationships. Campus life post-high school can feel liberating–but it’s also a little daunting. Without their familiar support system, some people can feel isolated or lonely, especially after facing violence. Creating a safe and respectful campus culture will help you to find and build the communities that will make your college experience even better. You’ll have the chance to surround yourself with people who share your values of respect and dignity, and experience new things while also feeling safe.

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Action Recommendation #12: Have fun safely. If you’re in an environment and you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to stay. Your wellbeing comes first–fun isn’t fun when you’re not having fun. Keep an eye out for anyone tampering with drinks. Intervene if you think someone is taking advantage of a person who might be impaired by alcohol or drugs. And be aware of other ways that your or anyone’s boundaries might be disrespected or ignored.

Action Recommendation #13: Remember: “fun” is not an excuse. And creating a hostile environment is definitely not fun. You probably don’t know what your new peers have seen, heard or been through. Be sensitive to other people’s experiences with sexual violence by being open and willing to learning, and respect others’ privacy. Every student’s safety and well-being takes priority over “just a joke.”

Action Recommendation #14: Extend your campus culture online. What you do online doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Social media can create hostile campus culture and facilitate bullying. If you encounter any cyberbullying, slut-shaming, rumor-spreading–or worse, threats or evidence of violence online–treat it as you would if you saw it happening in real life. Bystander intervention applies online too. So does consent! Ask before you share any information or media of other people.

Action Recommendation #15: Make your physical space a safer space. The campus space should be a safer space for everyone. Consider the physical landscape of your campus and its buildings—student housing, athletic facilities, and survivor/victim resources. These spaces should be accessible. Private spaces should be secure. These spaces shouldn’t contribute to an intimidating or unsupportive campus environment. Advocate for well-lit bathrooms, safe physical spaces, and anonymous reporting.

Action Recommendation #16: Make this your issue (it already is). Educate yourself and your friends about violence against women. Go to trainings and seminars. Attend or organise fundraising, awareness, or outreach events. Just be that person who embodies positive campus culture!

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