International Women’s Day, UNSW 2017


Prof Andrea Durbach delivered a speech, along with 8 other prominent women, at UNSW's IWD breakfast. Over 250 people gathered to listen to leading academics and MP/Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek. Read the speech here.

International Women’s Day, UNSW 2017


-       During my term as Deputy Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission between 2011 and 2012, I travelled around the country with the former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo, speaking to women in refugee communities, from Indigenous communities, women with disabilities, working women and to students.

-       The testimony we heard from students demonstrated that universities – like other institutions, such as the military – are not immune from sexual violence and the enduring harm borne by those who experience its different forms. As our Vice-Chancellor, Ian Jacobs has stated: Universities are complex environments. About three in five Australian university students are under 24, many are away from home for the first time, and there’s a vibrant social life on campus. We know too   that 18- to 24-year-olds are the group most likely to drink harmful levels of alcohol on a single occasion. All these factors compound the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault, but none excuse it.[1]

-       In 2011, the National Union of Students (NUS) conducted their Talk About It survey: 67% of respondents reported an unwanted sexual experience, 17% reported rape. Only 3% who had experienced assault or sexual harassment reported incidents to the university or to the police; the majority who did report, were unhappy with the response

-       Despite over 20 years of student activism on the topic of university sexual assault and harassment, it was the release in Australia of the documentary, The Hunting Ground, in mid-2015 which triggered a significant increase in Australian media exposure of incidents of sexual violence within university settings and compelled individual universities and peak bodies such as Universities Australia to place the issue firmly on their respective agendas.

-       With the release of The Hunting Ground in mid-2015, UNSW’s AHRCentre was commissioned to develop a major research project – Strengthening Australian university responses to sexual assault and harassment project – which has seen us work with the NUS, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Universities Australia to design the first ever National Student Survey on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault.

-       The survey was rolled out across all 39 Australian universities between September and December last year.

-       It will collate data on prevalence of sexual assault and harassment and importantly, the experiences of students who report sexual violence to their university, the nature of institutional responses, the sufficiency of support services and measures for prevention.

-       The analysis of the survey data – currently being undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Commission -– combined with our comparative international research, will be used to inform a report the AHRCentre will release in June this year on university good practice policies and procedures on sexual assault and harassment (and its prevention) for application and adaptation by universities across Australia.

-       While this data is going to be significant and immensely useful, I want to return to another finding of the NUS survey: that 67% of respondents who experienced sexual harassment, assault or stalking, said that it had affected their mental health.

-       It is the manifestation of this violence and its consequent harm experienced by men and women students at Australian universities (particularly by women, international students and those who identify as LGBTIQ) – harm perhaps exacerbated by a misguided, insufficient or dismissive response ­ which lies at the core of the AHRCentre’s project.

-       As a human rights lawyer and researcher our work is primarily directed at the end point of violations. As an academic and teacher, my concern is that the potential of young men and women is allowed to flourish - facilitated by a culture of learning that is respectful of other, an environment of freedom and safety, and institutional leadership that is supportive and appropriate to the needs of victims and fiercely intolerant of perpetrators who feel entitled and somehow honoured and emboldened by the humiliation and degradation of others.

-       The UNSW AHRCentre project invites us to draw on the national student voice and international comparative research to find effective and enduring ways of holding individuals to account and to devise forms of redress that can provide some compensation and redress.

-       But more importantly, it is a call to universities, such as our own, to act pre-emptively, and collaborate in the development of international best practice policies and procedures for academic institutions committed to reducing and preventing this violence and to take a critical steps toward changing a culture that undermines an environment that aims to permit ‘every member [to be] as free as possible to learn, to search for knowledge, and to express [their] own individual beliefs and opinions’.


Professor Andrea Durbach

Director, Australian Human Rights Centre


[1] Professor Ian Jacobs, Vice Chancellor, UNSW and Chairperson, Universities Australia Equity and Diversity Committee at the launch of the national student survey, UNSW, 23 August 2016