Cambridge is failing its women

We need to sort it out

An anecdote: last year, I lived at a considerable distance from college and the centre of town.

Walking home after a night out was always a bit of a trek, but it always came accompanied by the nervous stomach sensation, constant head-turning, and false phone-calling that I have come to accept as normal behaviour when, as a lone female, I am walking anywhere alone in the dark.

Another anecdote: I have been sexually assaulted.

Another anecdote: I am not alone in either of these situations, having listened through the tears and frustration of many close friends. Too many close friends.

Last year, research by the CUSU Women’s Campaign into the prevalence of sexual harassment and violence at the University of Cambridge found that 77% of those who responded had experienced sexual harassment in their time at Cambridge. Nearly 30% had experienced sexual assault, but, crucially, 96% of these assaults went unreported. When incidents of harassment or assault were reported to colleges or the University, less than 45% of students found that the policy procedures or welfare support available to them were satisfactory.

Just not good enough

These statistics are made all the more worrying when placed alongside recent NUS findings that 1 in 7 female students in the UK has experienced serious physical or sexual assault in their time as a student, and that only 4% of these women reported the assault to their university. On a national level, 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 women are sexually assaulted in England and Wales every year.

These figures terrify me. This is not some abstract issue or some ideological fight; this is misogyny and sexism and inequality right on our doorstep. Women are at risk in the very places where we should feel safe: in our colleges, in our homes, in our workplaces. We are not safe.

I’ve tried to explain to male friends the seemingly irrational tendency that I have to cross over to the other side of the road if I’m walking alone and see a group of guys standing together. But, to me, it’s not really irrational at all. Yes, those guys might be perfectly lovely. Yes, those guys might not even notice me if I walked past. Yes, not all men.


But despite being completely aware of that, I still feel unsafe. I begin to think about how far I could run if I had to; I start to plan which porter’s lodge to run to if I needed to; I check what I’m wearing to see if it might call forth a comment from them. It might seem irrational, but, given the statistics, it’s not wholly illogical.

I think we can all agree that something needs to change. The lightning reaction to the Boycott Gardies campaign is testament to the general consensus that there is a problem with Cambridge, and the amazing ability to do something when we set our minds to it. And whatever you think of the Women’s Campaign, it cannot be denied that they have done some pretty phenomenal work in leading the campaign for sexual consent. But we still have a way to go.

Student activism getting it right

The University’s procedures for dealing with sexual harassment and assault are, on the whole, shit. Tutors are untrained, senior staff are incompetent and policies are hidden away and out of date. A worryingly high number of colleges continue to break the law by having either no sexual harassment policy at all, or policies that are nowhere near aligned with the 2010 Equality Act. How are we supposed to feel protected in a system like this?

CUSU Women’s Campaign has drafted an open letter, calling on the University to develop a central policy on sexual harassment that all colleges and faculties will be obliged to sign up to. This policy must explain the support that students who face sexual harassment and violence will receive and the processes that will be involved in reporting a case of harassment. It must be clearly written and easily available for students to access. It must be reviewed regularly, and renewed when necessary in line with equality legislation and with the feedback and demands of students.

We want change

I can’t believe there isn’t already a university-wide sexual harassment policy. It just doesn’t make sense. But now is the time for change; too many students have been failed by this system.

Alongside this push for a change in policy, a new campaign is being launched this weekend to celebrate and promote sexual consent. Cambridge for Consent, the brainchild of Clare College student Rowan Douglas, is a university-wide campaign which aims to change the worryingly high statistics of sexual assault by raising the issue of consent as loudly and as tirelessly as they can.

Over the coming term, there will be a huge number of events including club nights, art projects and self-defence classes. Check out their website here which has details of loads of support networks and contacts, and keep an eye out on social media to show your support for this incredibly important campaign.

It’s time to say yes to change.