University of New England staff and students are starting the new university year by taking a symbolic stand against sexual assault and harassment, thanks to a new art installation.
All through Orientation Week, people can put their thumb-marks on a fabric flower, and pin it on the Fabric of Respect outside the Dixson Library.
“It’s a pledge of saying I, as an individual, commit to respectful behaviour between myself and everybody that I engage with, and the ability to step in and say when something isn’t appropriate,” artist Narelle Jarry said.
“What we’re doing is giving an opportunity to people to talk about sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus, and recognize that it’s everybody’s responsibility to change that behaviour.”
Ms Jarry, curator of the UNE Natural History Museum, created the artwork as a personal response to last year’s revelations that UNE had the highest levels of sexual violence in the country.
4 per cent of respondents to the Australian Human Rights Commission report stated that they had been sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016 – compared to a 1.6 per cent national average.
“Each of those numbers represented a person, and an incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” Ms Jarry said, “and I wanted to humanise those figures.
“I encourage the rest of the community to stand up for those people, and make sure it doesn’t happen again, rather than read the report, and say it either does or doesn’t involve me. It does. it involves each and every one of us.”
UNE is determined to prevent sexual violence on campus; it has improved campus security, tightened access to alcohol, and is reviewing its reporting and counselling systems.
While the institutional response is important, Ms Jarry believes the whole community has to tackle the issue, at a grassroots level.
“The university is an institution of people, and each of these people – whether staff or students – we make up the university; the university doesn’t exist without us.”
Encouraging people to take the pledge in Orientation Week, Ms Jarry explained, sent a powerful message to the community.
“There’s an expectation of zero tolerance, and we all need to uphold that. It’s a good thing for the first-year students to understand from the beginning, and it’s a great reminder for the rest of the staff and returning students that this is the expectation.”
The response from UNE has been positive. Undergrads and post-grads, Australian-born and foreign exchange students alike, have put their thumbprints on the Wall, and online students added their support on UNE’s Facebook page.
“Having personally experienced certain things,” says PhD student Russell Bicknell, “I can honestly say [sexual violence] needs to be more openly discussed… It’s a really important thing for UNE to be doing, to take that bold step and acknowledging we have to be having these hard discussions.”
The library staff have been particularly involved. They have collected fabric, cut it up, and organized volunteers to come and help.
“This is an issue that impacts on all of us,” said librarian Rachel Devenish-Meares.
“I’d like to see as many people of the UNE community take part as possible, and make sure that they are putting their stamp on the board to say that they don’t agree with sexual harassment at UNE.”
Ms Jarry invited members of the wider Armidale community to show their support for changing campus culture.
“I encourage the community to come and make their pledge, both the university and the local community,” she said.