Possibility Seeds with Marcela Linková, Furaha Joy Sekai Saungweme, and Dr. Allison Henry
Possibility Seeds is so proud to have led Courage to Act, Canada’s first national project to address and prevent gender-based violence on campus, for the past 5 years. As the project (at least in its current form!) sunsets, we wanted to speak with experts, advocates and thought leaders across the globe who are doing similar work in their countries, to spark connections that continue this work worldwide. Our guests today are:
Marcela Linková (Czech Republic)
Marcela Linková PhD is a researcher at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences where she heads the Centre for Gender and Science. She holds a doctorate in sociology from Charles University in Prague. Her research focuses on the sociology of gendered organizations, research careers, governance of research and research assessment from a gender perspective. She is involved in the EU-funded UniSAFE project.
Furaha Joy Sekai Saungweme (Southern Africa)
Furaha Joy Sekai Saungweme is a lawyer and the founder of Africa End Sexual Harassment Initiative (AESHI), a law reform and social movement project creating regional dialogue on sexual harassment and calling for the development of a regional model law on sexual harassment for Africa. Furaha has written widely on democracy, gender and socio-economic rights across Africa.
Dr. Allison Henry (Australia)
Dr. Allison Henry commenced as a PhD candidate with the Australian Human Rights Institute in 2018. Her PhD is focused on regulatory responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australian university settings. Allison was also the Campaign Director of The Hunting Ground Australia Project from 2015 to 2018 – a collaborative impact campaign that was instrumental in raising awareness of sexual violence on Australian university campuses.
Tell us about the national landscape for addressing and preventing gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses in your country or region:
Marcela: Up until a few years ago, gender-based violence in higher education and research was an invisible issue, and institutions did not have policies or preventative measures, case-handling procedures or people responsible for dealing with complaints. This has started to change, and there are three key factors. One is student mobilization, the second is the media reports of cases that come in the wake of utter failure on the part of the institutions to respond adequately, and the third is the existence of the Centre for Gender and Science at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences. We have been using the requirement of gender equality plans for European funding under Horizon Europe to advance the equality agenda and with this the issue of gender-based violence. We are also involved in the European project UniSAFE which has yielded serious findings about gender-based violence. All these developments have coalesced, and this year we are in the process of launching a national study building on the UniSAFE survey.
Furaha: Zimbabwe has a fairly impressive Constitution which recognizes equality and explicitly outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sex or gender. In addition, sexual offenses and violence against women are addressed under the Criminal Code and the Domestic Violence Act with a Victim-Friendly Court System. Zimbabwe also has a National Protocol on the Multi-Sectoral Management of Sexual Abuse and Violence and a National Action Plan on Rape and Sexual Abuse. However, these laws have little value when the perpetrators of sexual violence and harassment hold political and military power. Such abuse of intersectional power has a trickle-down effect on the safety of female students. There are at least 20 institutions across Zimbabwe including the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) established in 1952 and the Women’s University in Africa which aims to address gender disparity and foster equity in education.
Allison: There has been heightened attention on sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australian universities since the first comprehensive national survey results were released in the 2017 Change the Course report. Universities, residential colleges and their peak bodies subsequently reviewed existing university sexual violence policies and response pathways and adopted a range of initiatives. The national higher education regulator, TEQSA, also adopted some oversight mechanisms. These efforts have recently come under heavy critique, with a Senate Committee this week condemning the university sector and TEQSA, calling for the establishment of an independent task force to protect students and ensure institutional accountability.
Possibility Seeds: In recent years, Canada has made significant strides toward addressing and preventing gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses in recent years. While context and standards differ across each province and territory, and between institutions, Courage to Act’s work to coordinate collective national action and develop a national framework to address campus gender-based violence has helped generate systemic change. As provinces now look to apply their funding from the National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, advocates are pushing for specific attention to the campus setting.
How have students across your country shaped the movement to address and prevent campus gender-based violence?
Marcela: Student activities started to emerge in 2016 with the activist group Fourth Wave (Čtvrtá vlna) bringing together students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design, and the Faculty of Arts of Charles University. More forceful actions started in 2021 with a performance by Marie-Luisa Purkrábková, a former student of the Theatre Faculty in Prague (DAMU), presenting testimonies of her fellow colleagues about abusive behaviour they experienced from their teachers. Shortly after the topic attracted significant media attention, multiple cases of gender-based violence were publicly reported and this started to pressure university leadership.
The first initiative with impact was You Don’t! Have to Endure It at the Theatre Faculty in Prague (DAMU) which forced personnel changes among staff members, the creation of an ombudsperson position, a vote to limit the tenure of department heads and a programme to develop an ethical culture. This was followed by the founding of the Initiative Out Loud (Iniciativa Nahlas) at Charles University. This mobilization has helped to open topics of safety and toxicity. Others soon followed suit: Mater Nostra at Charles University, and You Don’t! Have to Endure It (Nemusíš to vydržet) FAMU (Film Faculty in Prague), safe space collective at Charles University, Feminist University Circle (Feministický univerzitní spolek) at the University of Western Bohemia and Why We Didn’t Report It (Proč jsme to nenahlásily*i). Debates are being held at many other universities and secondary schools, and a documentary After the Silence Was Broken (Arsenjev, 2023) was produced in 2023. So clearly, student mobilization is now at the forefront of the efforts to combat gender-based violence in higher education.
Furaha: Universities in Zimbabwe have always been catalysts of social movement activism dating as far back as the late 1980s and 1990s when there was a rise in student protests resulting in several closures and mass expulsions. In response to ongoing social, political, and economic challenges students have continued to protest; however, this often leads to female students becoming targets of politically motivated gender-based violence. Furthermore, the severe economic decline and absence of grants have exacerbated the risk of gender-based violence. Student activism has meant that education has been both politicized and militarized by the setting up of militia bases in schools and the infiltration of security forces disguised as civilians, students and even lecturers who have been known to use sexual violence.
Allison: Student leaders, survivors, sexual violence advocates and feminist activists have campaigned for decades to raise awareness of sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australian university settings. In recent years, Australian students have been instrumental in supporting survivors, documenting university and residential college responses and drawing attention to institutional failures. Student protests and individual student disclosures have driven media coverage and advocacy campaigns have prompted government action. Student representatives are now advising governments through the new Working Group addressing gender‑based violence in university communities.
Possibility Seeds: Student organizing has been essential to the work to address and prevent GBV on campuses in Canada. For decades, students have been the ones primarily pushing for change. Our Courage to Act project created a coalition of student leaders from coast to coast, representing over 1.2 million post-secondary students. Together, they have collaborated on several evidence-based resources and community-based projects to build awareness of the crisis of gender-based violence on their campuses. There are also other student advocacy groups engaged in meaningful work, like Students for Consent Culture and Action Now Atlantic. Together, these organizations provide national and regional outlets for student advocacy and activism. The most effective change for addressing campus violence results from collective organizing, so ensuring the long-term sustainability of these movements beyond campus grounds is essential.
What are the opportunities and challenges for addressing and preventing campus gender-based violence?
Marcela: What we have seen in the last three years in terms of student mobilization and the dedication of the newly appointed ombudspersons in universities is incredible. Student activism highlights the power of such initiatives but also the vulnerability of the students involved and the need to support them. The ombudspeople are sometimes working in very difficult institutional situations, battling for recognition and resources, and facing resistance from some of the staff or even their management. They soon realized they needed a platform to support and learn from each other and advocate jointly. On the downside, the public discussions around the topic reveal that some academics can’t bear the idea that grooming your students to have sex with you is unacceptable. Changing the academic culture and the whole narrative around acceptable behaviour continues to be a challenge.
Furaha: Female students have expressed fear of walking on campus at night or participating in student politics. Moreover, reporting mechanisms and failing hospital systems mean there are limited options to lodge complaints. Lack of access to the internet in a technology-dependent era is a concern. It inhibits the ability to report GBV, blocks access to an alternative voice against an authoritarian regime and reduces the capacity to organize, strategize and congregate whether off or online. Information pertaining to reproductive health issues also becomes limited due to being locked out of the virtual space. Ensuring that female students have access to modern digital gadgets, such as smartphones and laptops or computers and internet connection is critical. Private investment into institutional infrastructure allowing for street lights for night use and widely dispersed panic buttons across campus are also important preventative measures.
Allison: The Australian Government has recently established a cross-jurisdictional Working Group on Strengthening University Governance, tasked with recommending immediate measures to improve student and staff safety and address gender‑based violence in university communities. This development has gained significant national media attention, offering opportunities for student leaders and advocacy groups to highlight the experiences of student survivors and call out the need for reform. The major challenges are the lack of expert-informed student-centric good practice, the sector-wide absence of monitoring and enforcement, intractable universities that insist they are already pursuing effective action, and an ineffectual national higher education regulator.
Possibility Seeds: Canada’s National Action Plan to End Gender-based Violence and associated funding presents provinces and territories with an opportunity to meaningfully address GBV on campuses in their own unique contexts. The Our Campus, Our Safety report provides a strong starting point for PSIs, and all levels of government, to take effective action. Opportunities for provincial and territorial governments to create change include: setting provincial standards for campus sexual violence data collection in collaboration with key stakeholders; creating and strengthening provincial & territorial legislative and regulatory frameworks; building provincial/territorial advisory committees on campus sexual violence with paid student representation; and ensuring sustainable funding for community and campus sexual assault centres.
Opportunities for the federal government include: setting a national standard for how PSIs should address, prevent and respond to sexual violence on campus; and ensuring that addressing campus sexual violence is prioritized in national action plans on gender-based violence. The federal government must also heed the Calls for Justice in the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, many of which touch on post-secondary education.
Opportunities for PSIs to create change include implementing sustainable well-funded campus-wide education plans; applying trauma-informed practices, procedural fairness and harm reduction principles to all sexual violence complaint processes; ensuring accessible academic accommodations/considerations for people affected by sexual violence; and centring survivor voices in institutional policy making.
We also urge PSIs to create change on the issue of sexual harassment in experiential learning. Possibility Seeds’ national research study (released September 2023) found 1 in 2 post-secondary students surveyed were subjected to sexual harassment in experiential learning, and almost three-quarters of staff at post-secondary institutions were aware of at least one example of sexual harassment against an experiential learning student. Students shouldn’t have to choose between getting their degree and being safe in their work placements.
What sustains you in this work? What keeps you hopeful?
Marcela: Right now is the first time that we are seeing the issue being taken seriously. The student initiatives have been a game changer, they are vocal and while the pressure on them is huge, they also seem to be undeterred. The dedication of the ombudspersons is incredible. Having these two stakeholder groups as allies makes it possible to keep the issue on track. For the first time, we are also seeing that the management of some higher education and research institutions want to take action, and we also currently have a favourable political situation at the relevant ministry. So we are in a hopeful position and are working hard to make the most of it.
Furaha: UNESCO initiated the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, which identified Zimbabwe as one of the countries of concern; The General Assembly of the United Nations with UN Resolution No. 1612 has also echoed this concern. Such international attention and awareness of attacks on institutions in the form of gender-based violence as an intentional political act provides hope that justice is on its way. There is also a need to be vigilant about awareness raising on reproductive health services and improving the collection and use of violence against female students’ data.
Allison: Solidarity with fellow advocates, and the strength and courage of student survivors. It has been a long journey but we have built a compelling evidence base and collaborative campaign which is now finally starting to see meaningful responses from government and institutions.
Possibility Seeds: Seeing the traction and attention that the work to address and prevent GBV on campuses has garnered in recent years is tremendously hopeful. The dedication that survivors, student leaders, post-secondary administrators, faculty and staff, parents, legal experts, union leaders and community organizations have demonstrated in advocating for this issue across Canada has already resulted in effective and transformative change. The Courage to Act project has brought much hope; it is a testament to the power of collaboration, innovation and community engagement. We remain steadfast in our mission to create a world where students are safe, wherever they choose to live, work, study and play.
Suggested Reference: Courage to Act. (2023, October). Creating Global Connections: a Conversation with Anti-GBV Activists on Campuses Around the World. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/global-connections