Written by: Marcela Linková
Most of us have been there: comments about women’s place being in the kitchen or not having what it takes to succeed in a male-dominated discipline; sexualised comments directed toward female, trans and gender non-binary students; inappropriate touching during exams and consultations; being in unsafe situations at conferences and during field research; pornographic images circulated in office spaces; shared tacit knowledge about which professors to avoid; the silence and lack of response after reporting an incident; and feeling at a loss as to what to do because your institution does not have a policy to address gender-based violence that you know of.
Gender-based violence (GBV) in academic settings is a complex and persistent problem, and takes various forms from physical, sexual, economic and financial, to psychological. It takes place offline as well as online, a surge that has been reported at some institutions during the COVID-19 lockdowns and transition to online teaching. Despite the scale, the impact on the learning outcomes and careers of women and other marginalised groups (such as LGBTQI+, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, international students and research staff, and others), GBV in research and higher education organisations still remains insufficiently addressed through institutional policies, is under-reported and under-researched, not least from a feminist and intersectional perspective. But without the knowledge about its prevalence, appropriate infrastructure, measures, and activities in place and—primarily—recognition of the severity of the problem, GBV in academia continues to be hard to combat.
Enter UniSAFE, a three-year, EU-funded research project launched in February 2021 that brings together a strong multidisciplinary consortium of nine European partners to study GBV in academia, develop a toolkit and recommendations, and spread its findings and recommendations far and wide. To ensure concrete impact, UniSAFE is partnering with 45 research and higher education institutions across Europe that will not only participate in the research activities but also in co-creation events and will become part of a larger community of institutions across Europe. This community will exchange and share on the recommendations and their implementation, deepening the institutional processes to effect actual institutional change.
Analysing the mechanisms of GBV, its social determinants, antecedents and consequences, UniSAFE revolves around three research pillars combined in a holistic research model. The first is a study at the micro level of prevalence and impacts of GBV at 45 institutions. The second at the meso level is a study of organisational responses and infrastructure that will be studied through in-depth case studies, interviews, and a strategic mapping of research organisations in 15 EU countries. And the third at the macro level is an analysis of legal and policy frameworks carried out in cooperation with national experts in 27 European states and 3 associated and third countries. The comprehensive approach adopted in UniSAFE lies in the 7P model of prevalence, prevention, protection, prosecution, provision of services, partnerships and policies. While the project takes a victim/survivor-centred approach, it pays attention to the role of by-standers and perpetrators.
The first stage of the project is focusing on the analysis of national laws, policies and strategies to combat GBV in academia. The preliminary results show that, in the EU, there are differences between the older (“EU-14”) and newer (“EU-13”) member states. Overall, the older EU member states and the two Third Countries included (Canada, USA) have more laws, policies and other actions in place compared to the newer countries and some of the Associated Countries involved (Island, Turkey, Serbia, UK). Perhaps not surprisingly, countries tend to use policies more than legislation when it comes to GBV in academia, although the numbers are quite low for both (14 and 8 out of the total 33 countries mapped). A little more than half of the countries have put other actions/measures in place or are planning to. These include surveys, reports, guidelines, workshops, trainings, web portals, networking, etc. Very few countries have put incentives and formal partnerships in place, and again there are stark differences between the EU-14 and EU-13.
One alarming finding is that there is practically nothing in place to ensure the safety of internationally-mobile students and staff in academia. Given the importance of international exchange in higher education and research and the increased vulnerability of people in new settings without their social networks and knowledge of the environment, this can be a particularly worrying issue for academia. Equally noteworthy is the total lack of action in Europe taken by research funding organisations (such as grant agencies or research councils), given the fact that research funders play a crucial role in the research and innovation ecosystem and can set standards and rules for participation. The only examples come from the United Kingdom and the United States (the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health).
In short, little has been done so far in the EU in terms of creating a framework to address GBV in academia. UniSAFE is here to change that, building the necessary knowledge base so research and higher education institutions can eradicate GBV in all its forms, and keep people safe.
Suggested Citation: Linková, Marcela. (2021, July). UniSAFE, an European project to end gender-based violence in universities and research organizations. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/unisafe