A campaign called Account for This, has called on SOAS to improve its services in dealing with victims of sexual harassment, following a recent case of sexual harassment by a postgraduate student at the university.
In August 2018, an anonymous letter alleging that a postgraduate student at SOAS had harassed multiple women, both sexually and mentally, was posted online. The letter was also sent to ‘Account For This SOAS’—a group of SOAS students who have dedicated themselves to a campaign focused on bettering the response and support given to victims of gender based violence by the university. The Account For This campaigners then circulated the letter within SOAS circles, and started an online petition asking the university to provide adequate support in cases of gender based violence, through reforming SOAS mechanisms that they allege are complicit in hindering justice for the survivors of such violence.
“SOAS recorded zero formal complaints regarding gender based violence between 2011-2018”
The letter and further documents published by the Account For This campaign detail the experiences of students at SOAS who have faced different forms of gender based violence. The published testimonies, both anonymous and named, describe the victims being sexually harassed, stalked and further imposed upon in a similar manner. Many who reported their problems to SOAS management felt they received insufficient support and relief. According to the campaign’s petition, as per a Freedom of Information request, SOAS recorded zero formal complaints regarding gender based violence between 2011-2018 (where the perpetrator is university staff, former university staff or an academic in a non-stipendiary role). Pointing to statistical evidence of harassment in UK universities—an NUS report, Hidden Marks, stated that 1 in 7 respondents faced physical or sexual assault as students.
The campaigners believe that the lack of recorded complaints is due to ‘the apprehension of danger, but primarily because of the inaccessibility of institutional redressal mechanisms’.
The SOAS complaints procedure is divided between stages. The first is the informal stage, where complaints are mediated by the Head of the Department. If the issue is not resolved, then the complaint moves into the formal stage. Here, the Information Compliance Manager assigns an investigator to deal with the complaint. However, if the problem cannot be satisfactorily resolved then it is forwarded onto an Appeals Panel. At this point, if the complainant is not satisfied, then another appeal can be made to the office of the Independent Adjudicator. The campaign maintains that this procedure at SOAS is confusing, and being made to jump through bureaucratic hoops of sorts act as an impediment to survivors trying to report harassment or abuse. They point out that there are holes in the procedure which discourage victims from making formal complaints, such as who else to report to if the Head of Department is the perpetrator, or the fact that part of this procedure (notice to respond sent to the perpetrator) entails the school to reveal the complainant’s details, thereby potentially endangering the complainant. The SOAS code of conduct does include sexual misconduct as a disciplinary offence. But, the campaigners also question what sanctions could be levied on the perpetrator and how they would be enforced, as there is no information regarding this because no previous cases have been recorded at SOAS. A SOAS spokesperson though said, “As with all SOAS policies and procedures, our students complaints process is kept under regular review. The next review for student complaints takes place later this autumn, and will of course include feedback and views from across the SOAS community. As part of ensuring we take account of best practice across the sector, we will be appointing an independent external to lead the review.”
The Account For This petition also criticises the ‘[email protected]’ policy, which is meant to be an ‘informal alternative to first stage formal complaints’. In the petition, they state that having the victim issue a ‘STOP’ message to the perpetrator places the burden of responsibility on the victim and creates no accountability for the perpetrator. Furthermore, the Account For This petition highlights that the Students’ Union and the Student Advice and Wellbeing, which are both offices that survivors of gender based violence are likely to reach out to, seem to be ill equipped to offer adequate help and support. The Student Advice office can only provide counselling, and that too constrained by long waitlists. And, although the SU has a staff member for Academic and Welfare Advice it at present lacks the resources to do more than signposting and directing all harassment and bullying complaints to the Diversity and Equality office at SOAS.
Through the Enough is Enough campaign, the SU did secure funding for mandatory consent workshops at SOAS. However, there is currently no way to regulate that all students are actually attending these workshops. The consent workshops, while a good step in possibly reducing gender based violence, are arguably not enough on their own. Based on accounts from those present in the consent workshops, it seems that owing to a lack of time but mostly because it is very confusing, the complaints procedure for victims of gender based violence is addressed but not sufficiently explained in detail. The workshops running this year do touch on intersectionality and consent, the Account For This movement, rape culture and useful websites.
The Account For This movement demands that SOAS overhaul its current policies that deal with gender based violence, and in lieu of that, to also come up with a ‘single, comprehensive, accessible, feminist and survivor-centric policy’ to respond to complaints of gender based violence and provide action and accountability against perpetrators. SOAS management when contacted for a comment on the movement, referred to Professor Andrea Cornwall (Pro Director Research & Enterprise), Convenor of the ‘[email protected]’ initiative, who stated, “The School’s senior management and the SU came together in an open forum on SGBV, hosted jointly and organised by Account for This in response to a petition sent by Account For This SOAS”. The Account For This campaigners, however, wished to make clear that though they may have participated in the forum, owing to a need to work with the SU and management on the issue, they still are a movement entirely distinct from the SU and management and will continue to hold them to account. Professor Cornwall, whilst elaborating on how SOAS is tackling the issue, also said, “For the School, this is the first of a series of open, non-hierarchical and democratic forums where the SOAS community can come together. And that a new initiative called [email protected], seeks to create a space that brings together our community to hold ourselves collectively to account, as well as ensure that our commitments follow through to action on SGBV, bullying and harassment, and any other form of unacceptable behaviour”.
AROOJ SULTAN, BA ECONOMICS AND POLITICS
CO-EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE SOAS SPIRIT