Sexual and gender-based violence: universities will follow through on their commitments
France Universités

Sexual and gender-based violence: universities will follow through on their commitments

France Universités : date de publication

A calm and respectful environment is key to academic success. Universities know this, and that is why they are implementing tools to fight against all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.

Isabelle Kraus, Isabelle Régner and Nicoletta Tchou are all vice-presidents for gender equality at the Université de Strasbourg, Aix Marseille Université and Université de Rennes 1 respectively.

They act to give concrete expression, on a daily basis, to proactive policies adopted by their institutions. For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25, 2022, they agreed to answer questions from France Universités. In this interview, they deliver a lucid and informed account of the problem of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in universities, highlight the actions taken, and suggest ways to improve both at the institutional level and at the national level.

France Universités: What forms does sexual and gender-based violence take in institutions?

Nicoletta Tchou (Vice-president for social responsibility in charge of equality and the fight against discrimination – University of Rennes 1): There are many forms of sexual and gender-based violence in the world of higher education and research: verbal aggression, unwanted physical contact, LGBTQIA+phobic remarks. The film “Briser le silence dans les amphis” directed by Lysa Heurtier Manzanares presents significant examples. And the statistical survey “Virage” provides a detailed analysis.

Our experience shows us that certain situations are particularly to be monitored: the exercise of direct power by one person (often alone) over another (such as thesis or internship supervision); festive events (during integration weeks, for example) and social networks (sexist and sexual cyberbullying). And no department, no laboratory or training unit, no promotion is a priori safe.

How can social stereotypes be defined? To what extent do they lead to violence against women and minorities in general?

Isabelle Régner (Vice President for Gender Equality and Anti-Discrimination – Aix Marseille University): this involves believing in the existence of personality traits, skills, and behaviors common to a group of people. Stereotypes lead to a process of generalization, considering that the stereotyped characteristics necessarily apply to all members of the group, without verification. Moreover, they contribute to maintaining social inequalities by legitimizing the inferiority position of certain groups through the characteristics and roles that are attributed or prescribed to them.

For example, gender stereotypes still lead to women being perceived as motherly, gentle, and competent in the Humanities and not very good in Mathematics. Conversely, men are perceived as less strong in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and relationship management, but are known for their leadership, authority, and competence in Math. These different characteristics, often perceived as normal and intimately related to biological differences, can contribute to the generation or legitimization of violence, both physical and psychological, against women. The same is true for minorities in general, and even more so when individuals do not behave in accordance with the roles prescribed by the group to which they belong.

How can universities become places where female students can feel trust and confidence? What actions have been implemented at the University of Strasbourg?

Isabelle Kraus (Vice-President of Equality, Parity and Diversity – University of Strasbourg): Trust and confidence are indeed essential. When a victim finds the courage to confide in us, it is important that she is heard by the institution, and when she finds people who are aware of the situation and who can direct her to a place where she can be listened to and supported. To this end, the Université de Strasbourg, like many other universities, has undertaken several initiatives:

– The creation of a listening and support unit, managed by people specialized in helping victims and bound by rules of confidentiality. This structure makes it possible to meet victims face-to-face, to listen to them, to assess their needs and to inform them. It also accompanies the person throughout the internal procedure, which can go as far as a referral to the disciplinary commission. The Université de Strasbourg has signed a partnership with the association SOS France Victimes 67, which is certified by the Ministry of Justice not only to offer victims a neutral space, outside the university, but to investigate any possible criminal dimension of the victim’s experience and to accompany them in that process. 

– The development of an information sheet, entitled, “I’ve been alerted, what should I do?” and an associated training course carried out with the help of SOS France Victimes 67.

– The organization of significant events, which are meaningful for victims: November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and March 8, International Women’s Rights Day.

Is the training of students and staff an effective tool? How does Aix-Marseille-Université implement the fight against SGBV, through training?

Isabelle Régner: It is an essential tool! It is important to offer training courses that make people aware of the existence of stereotypes, sexist and sexual violence, and discrimination, to explain how they work, to enable everyone to identify problematic situations in order to help prevent them and put an end to them. Several training sessions of this type have been organized at Aix-Marseille Université.

The Théâtre-Forum, for example, is an artistic tool for participatory teaching, supervised by professionals, which allows for debate. By re-enacting a scene to change the course of events, students leave with tools to identify, thwart and report situations of SGBV and discrimination. This perspective is a real revelation for many of them. Several training courses are offered each year to staff on harassment and violence, LGBTI-phobia, and the fight against racism and anti-Semitism. Other training courses specifically target competitive examination juries to combat gender discrimination during recruitment.

Finally, in order to contribute to guaranteeing a serene and safe environment within our university, we have developed our system for reporting SGBV by creating, in 2022, the Service pour le Respect et l’Egalité for all staff and the student community. This is an internal service entirely dedicated to the reporting and treatment of incidents involving violence, harassment and discrimination, located in adapted premises and managed by three full-time professionals (2 lawyers and 1 psychologist), who are bilingual, and mobile on all campuses.

You chaired the Conférence Permanente des Charé.e.s de Mission Egalité et Diversité (CPED) from 2011 to 2016. What actions have been put in place to structure the tools for fighting SGBV at the national level?

Isabelle Kraus: The CPED proposed working groups on the subject very early on. The objective was to raise awareness among its members, to exchange on the obstacles encountered and the tools to be developed. Today, the CPED continues its mobilization. In partnership with the National Association of Feminist Studies, it offers training to institutions of higher education on the establishment of listening and support units.

The Ministry’s action on this subject is also important. For several years now, the political will has been there, which facilitates and accelerates the implementation of structured measures and allows the SGBV to become a major point for institutional mobilization. The funding of initiatives since 2021, based on calls for projects, has enabled institutions to propose training and awareness-raising actions and thus to become better structured. The question of strengthening and sustaining resources for all institutions still needs to be addressed. Finally, we should note the major commitment of France Universités and student associations at the national level.

What avenues do you see for improvement? What are the priorities to be implemented today?

Nicoletta Tchou: The fight against sexual and gender-based violence must be carried out by all members of our institutions. To do this, it is important to set up dedicated teams that coordinate actions, that work on several levels: psychological, medical, legal, social, and political, and that communicate. It is also important that these teams receive strong support from the institutional governance structures and from the Ministry. It is not enough to appoint people in charge of the mission against SGBV: this mission must be integrated into training, research, and human-resource management policies, by reserving human and financial resources for long-term projects, such as the plans on professional equality.

Training is a necessary tool for the prevention of SGBV. The Ministry has recently taken up this issue and is organizing very comprehensive training for staff. We hope that this effort will be expanded to reach our student population as well.

Furthermore, I believe that strengthening legal services is essential to ensure that investigations are carried out properly and that disciplinary procedures are effective and swift. And in order to deal with victim suffering, medical services must be in place.

Finally, an institution’s actions must be communicated and transparent. A new legal framework that puts victims at the center of disciplinary proceedings throughout the process would be an essential step forward.

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