Monday 21 October 2019

Mary Mitchell O'Connor: 'We have a problem with consent, and we're failing our students and society'

Former US President Jimmy Carter long ago saw the threat to women and girls, and it's time we all took note

'It’s been widely reported that 46pc of those who presented themselves to our six Sexual Assault Trauma Units around the country were students' Stock photo
'It’s been widely reported that 46pc of those who presented themselves to our six Sexual Assault Trauma Units around the country were students' Stock photo

Mary Mitchell O'Connor

On my bedside table sits one of the most powerful books ever written about discrimination and violence against women and girls. My well-thumbed copy is frayed at the edges, its spine is cracked, and pages are dog-eared.

The book is A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. It is a comprehensive overview of how women are dominated, abused, held down and held back the world over. And it was written by a man - Jimmy Carter, the former US President.

Speaking last year at a Virginia university, the 94-year-old, who has focused on philanthropic causes since leaving the Oval Office in 1981, identified the violation of women and young girls as the world's most pressing issue.

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He's not wrong.

We in Ireland have a pressing issue within our higher education institutes. We have a real problem with consent. We are failing. Failing our students and therefore failing our society.

The fact that we have a problem isn't an opinion. My opinion. It's not open to debate or discussion. It's a fact and the figures tell a distressing story.

It's been widely reported that 46pc of those who presented themselves to our six Sexual Assault Trauma Units around the country were students. And 25pc of women students have experienced unwanted sexual contact, or attempts at unwanted sexual contact, through the use or threat of violence. Yes, 25pc - that is one in four female students. These events should be at the very least rare. And ideally non-existent. But instead they are common, everyday occurrences.

When I began drawing up a framework for consent in Higher Education Institutions (HEI), I was conscious that we must protect all students - because women are not the only victims of sexual assault. Men, disabled, LGBTI+, non-binary students all deserve to be educated in a safe and respectful environment. It should also be a place in which academics and staff want to work.

Last Friday, I launched the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions: 'Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive - Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Education Institutions'.

I did so because we know that sexual discrimination is prevalent on our college campuses.

This is the young student home with her or his family for the weekend who will pack a bag and board a train or bus to return to a place of study where they will at some point be objectified. Think on that as you wave your child off this evening for college.

Carter cites a lack of clear procedures and support structures on American campuses as one of the reasons why women will not report sexual assault. Just last year in Ireland, three female students reported sexual assaults in Cork. Two have since dropped out of college. Where was the support for these women?

Which is why my framework for consent is so important.

Just last week, I received an email from a student. She wanted to petition me to wholeheartedly understand the importance of the targeted initiatives that are included within my Framework on Consent. By targeted initiatives, we are talking about workshops, seminars and other activities for students and staff that aim to assist students find their voice on the issue of consent.

She continued telling me her story, on the night of her debs, before she went to college at all, she was raped. She didn't realise this is what had happened until she attended a Bystander Intervention initiative in her first year at university.

What struck me was the myriad questions that raced through this young girl's mind as she tried to explain the scenario.

She was 18 and a virgin, but she was also wearing a tight dress and willingly consumed a lot of alcohol. She was happy to fool around with the assailant, who was known to her and for whom she had a growing fondness, but she had repeatedly said no to full sex. He ignored her and did it anyway.

The tour de force of that consent class has been life-changing for this student.

She understands now that what happened to her was rape. She did not consent to full intercourse.

What followed from this consent class was a healing process for this young woman, where she could try to stop beating herself up for what had happened. The confidence gleaned from the class helped her discuss the rape with her parents and friends.

That is why we need this framework where we promote a healthy and informed understanding of consent in our higher education system.

To mainstream these initiatives within our higher education institutions, there is strong research that they shouldn't be mandatory.

While these interventions play an essential role in educating our students, and I witnessed that first-hand in reading that email from that young student, they are unlikely on their own to challenge institutional culture and practices.

Every student, whatever their sexual orientation, needs to know they have a voice in these confusing times, that they have the right to say no and there is help at hand on the college campus should they need it.

In educating ourselves on consent we can help rid our college campuses of sexual harassment and violence.

Mary Mitchell O'Connor is the Minister of State for Higher Education.

Sunday Independent

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