Masses of students protest the University of Edinburgh’s Sexual Violence Redressal System
‘One, two, three, four, sexual violence has got to go’ - just one of the many unified and repeated chants that could be heard by the hundreds of students who lined Bristo Square on Wednesday 9th February in the afternoon, passionately protesting the university’s sexual violence redressal system.
Image description: This work was originally created in May 2020 in tribute to George Floyd. Using felt pen on paper, there is a singular figure depicted in the middle raising one fist. The symbol of the fist is often used as a symbol of political solidarity. This figure is placed amongst a vibrant scene of intersecting planes, bold oranges and yellows. Such a vibrancy creates an illusion to the dynamism and energy that support the figure, not unlike the protests that ensued after Floyd's murder.
Indeed, such a protest came in the wake of a recent petition set up by University of Edinburgh (UOE) student Aarti Mukhedkar. Amassing over 50,000 signatures, it calls for urgent change to the university’s approach, with reports indicating, ‘there are hundreds of cases of sexual assault reported at the University of Edinburgh every year’ and that ‘‘for every one reported case, there are a hundred that go unreported’.
The origin of such a petition comes from Aarti’s own experiences of neglect at the hands of the University. In direct conversation with The edi magazine, she stated that, in a ‘veiled attempt’ to receive help, she instead proceeded to be ‘manipulated, lied to, and gaslighted by the very structure that is supposed to care for your safety’, with such process being endured for up to 11 months. Though her case was upheld by the Conduct Investigator as ‘severe’, and despite sound evidence by the Conduct Investigator that the assault had indeed occurred, the Student Disciplinary Committee (SDC) arbitrarily dismissed it in its entirety. When she sought legal counsel in the pursuit of filing an appeal, it was discovered that the appeal option is only available to the accused, and not to the victim, leaving her in a position of great helplessness.
Indeed, her experience was so damaging that she powerfully insisted that if a survivor sought her advice on whether to report to the university directly, ‘I would say no’. She went further stating that ‘to tell a survivor not to seek justice in a place that has the responsibility to care for them… breaks my heart’, with the ‘cruel and almost sadistic environment …. complicit in the traumatisation of vulnerable people’.
Aarti’s experience is, unfortunately, neither unique nor uncommon, with the University of Edinburgh holding the highest number of reported cases of sexual violence amongst all Scottish universities, receiving 76 reported incidents of sexual misconduct since 2016.
The number of unreported sexual assault experiences by UOE students likely remains unknown, with Aarti poignantly sharing that many survivors feared speaking up due to the ‘terrifying, authoritative and “police-like” approach of the university’. Consequently, a plethora of these students are then unable to access their education or go to university-owned spaces, instead of having to forcibly move to online learning or live at home.
It is unsurprising therefore that though one should acknowledge that Vice Principal Colm Harmon has, on behalf of the university, responded to this petition, stating that ‘Our processes are, I believe, robust and consistent... it is clear that for you, they have failed’. Followed by a further statement that, ‘I apologise for your experience and for the sense that we have failed you’, this so-called ‘apology’ proves highly unsatisfactory. Ultimately, as has been evidenced statistically and further enforced by the masses of support Aarti’s campaign has received, her experience is neither an anomaly nor an isolated incident, but instead represents an amalgamation of catastrophic errors underpinning the university’s sexual violence redressal system. Thus, taking to social media, Aarti affirmed that to make an apology for this system failing just one student, rather than several hundred, falls ‘extremely short’ of her initial demand for a ‘formal written apology to all survivors and the larger student community’.
When asked what she feels should be done to transform this system and its damaging effects, Aarti is clear. An apology for ‘the trauma and grief they have caused survivors who have reached out to them’ is urgently required. Furthermore, precautionary measures should be instated, ensuring that survivors whose cases are dismissed can access their education without fear of being sexually harassed, raped or assaulted. Most significantly, however, she demands for structural ‘change’, aided by external legal help and without delay, to make this system fair and equal for all. Her passion for change is unequivocal and powerfully moving. When discussing their necessity she states that she feels ‘sick’ for even having to request them in the first place, with these ‘basic human rights’, most importantly the right to feel safe, one which shouldn’t require negotiation nor persuasion.
The impact of the petition, protest and the necessary discussions generated in their aftermath, is not to be understated in its significance, with it evident that this movement extends far beyond the mere individual. Aarti’s experience appears to be one of a microcosm, encapsulating hundreds of others simultaneously sharing in her great pain and frustration.
In light of this, Aarti poignantly insists that ‘the purpose of the protest was to show the university that my campaign is not about a single story, it is about the hundreds of lives they have ruined, and the thousands of human beings they have led down by their unfair trials’. To speak to, hug and unite with survivors in person was, she expressed, undoubtedly ‘cathartic’, with the strength in numbers acting as an assurance that neither she nor anybody else is alone in their continued fight for justice. Indeed, she hopes that the protest has provided the university with a clear message: ‘We are human beings, who are vulnerable and emotional, but also strong enough to follow this through. We’re not fucking around, and we want change. Now’.