Categories
Voices

Will the University of Edinburgh go further than Teviot posters to tackle the issue of women’s safety?

Cw: Sexual assault, Sexual violence

Nightclubs have reopened this week (24th Jan) in Scotland under the most recent relaxation of Scotland’s COVID restrictions. The issue of safety is once again brought to the forefront of many women’s’ lives. Nightclubs all seem to be saying that they are making a concerted effort to keep women safe. The University says it is also making a concerted effort to tackle the very present rape culture at the University? But is this really the case? 

I asked various female friends of their experiences at different clubs and whether they felt like anything had really changed? Did they feel safer? 

Friends who had gone to Mash House said whilst they felt relatively safe, there were no obvious measures that had been taken to try and improve the situation. There were, for example, no lids on cups – an easy measure for nightclubs to take which could make a massive difference.

Advertisement for The Scottish Gambling Education Hub. Click on the image to complete the survey.

There were yet more reports of girls being groped at Whynot, with women saying they did not feel like anything had really changed. The only club which I heard of that had made positive changes was Subway; with lids on cups with straws and staff at the edge of the dancefloor on hand if anything does go downhill…So, mixed progress from the nightclubs at best. 

More recently the big news on this front within the university community is that the Feminist Society, which made a concerted effort to work with the clubs to improve their safety measures, is now turning its attention to hold the university accountable regarding its efforts (or lack thereof) to put the welfare of students first and tackle the “culture of sexual aggression” that exists at the University.

The FemSoc letter aims to put pressure on the university to try and change the culture of sexual violence at university, and to change the reporting system to make it more accessible. Feminist Society is also offering to work with the university to help them implement further measures to make it a safer environment for women. Addressed to the Vice Principle, it has been written after the society launched a survey at the start of semester one asking students to come forward with their experiences of sexual aggression in Edinburgh in the first few weeks of term. It has had almost 600 signatures from students, societies and local businesses. The letter describes how the survey had more than 90 responses – which would indicate that the real number will be significantly higher given that many students may not want to come forward about this. 40% of respondents were first year students. Almost 10% of respondents say there were raped. Nearly 70% of respondents did not feel confident in knowing how to report the assault to the university. But will these efforts be successful? 

I really hope the letter will lead to real and substantial change, but sadly I am not sure there will be – but not for a lack of effort on behalf of students and societies. The fact is that the University of Edinburgh has long had bad press about its level of sexual violence and its lack of efforts to tackle this. In April 2021, Everyone’s Invited reported more than 100 cases of rape and sexual violence at the University of Edinburgh. In response to this, most of the time, from what I can tell, the University likes to tell all its students what it has already done (which is mediocre at best) rather than implementing more substantial change or asking students what change they would like to see and holding themselves to account in that sense.

Feminist Society has long asked there to be a mandatory consent module at the start of first year (which is standard practice at many other universities, including the likes of St Andrews and Oxford). The University has made this module optional rather than mandatory which defeats the purpose of the module, given that those students who might need to take it, are unlikely to choose to take it. Whilst the university has appointed a Sexual Violence and Harassment officer, many students find the reporting process exceptionally invalidating and traumatic. The standard offer of 4-5 counselling sessions is disappointing given the complexity of the trauma response post an incident of sexual assault. It allows the university to say “job done” without really helping the survivors of sexual violence.  

Whilst the problem of women’s safety naturally requires systemic change, the University of Edinburgh has a big role to play in changing the culture of sexual violence in Edinburgh, on and off campus. They have a responsibility to the students for their welfare; but also to make sure the institution, its education and its culture reflect modern society and values. This is especially important given that the University of Edinburgh is the third most reported university in the UK for a rape culture, indicating the scale of the problem. You never know, improving this aspect of student life might also improve the level of student satisfaction at the university, which Edinburgh scores notoriously badly on in the League Tables. So for a university, which is so often concerned about its image and its position in the league tables, you would like to think they might finally implement some real, substantial and significant change. 

Image via Shutterstock