Irish Examiner View: Harris must follow up bold words with action

A shocking new report has detailed the prevalence of sexual violence in Irish colleges. Higher education minister Simon Harris says he is determined to tackle it.
Irish Examiner View: Harris must follow up bold words with action
'I don’t care if they came home with you. Sex without consent is assault and it is a crime,' said higher education minister Simon Harris. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Should we tell the young women due to start college this autumn that one in three of them is likely to be raped? Or that two-thirds of their fellow female students will experience sexual harassment during their time at university?

Those stark statistics, revealed in the first nationwide survey of its kind last month, are not what students might expect to hear at Freshers’ Week — although they should, because the opening week of college, along with Rag Week, have been identified as times when sexual assaults and rape peak.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris was said to be stunned by the findings of a survey of over 6,000 students undertaken by NUI Galway’s Active Consent Programme with the Union of Students in Ireland.

They are not entirely new, though. It is worth recalling that his predecessor Mary Mitchell O’Connor was also “appalled” by the prevalence of sexual violence on campus as far back as 2018. She went on to launch the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions in 2019, a document with good intentions though often very woolly statements, such as this one from the minister: “Through the development of this framework, I believe we can escalate an institutional culture change on our campuses.”

It was a breath of fresh air, then, to hear Mr Harris speak with such forthrightness of the urgent need to “cop-on”, as he challenged the third-level sector to come up with three concrete proposals to tackle sexual violence, and to implement them within 12 months.

Yesterday, he told the National Women’s Council and the National Advisory Committee that he was determined to deal with this issue. And, on the evidence of recent days, we might believe that his strong words are more than virtue-signalling and political posturing.

He met many of the organisations already working to tackle the problems, and said that he and justice minister Helen McEntee were committed to being voices for change in the area. The frameworks are there, the goals are there — now it’s time to implement them and hold each other to account, he said.

Strong words indeed. And welcome ones.

It also means something when an Irish minister stands up and says: “I don’t care what a victim was wearing. I don’t care how many drinks the perpetrator or the victim had. I don’t care if you believed he or she was ‘up for it’ or not. I don’t care if they came home with you. Sex without consent is assault and it is a crime.”

The problem, of course, does not start at college but long before, as the minister outlined with clarity and insight when he spoke of how sexual violence and harassment insinuate themselves into a nation’s culture through violent pornography on smartphones, teaching children about sex through a prism of judgement or shame, toxic atmospheres in sports clubs, the workplace, and our pubs and nightclubs.

Campaigners everywhere will also welcome his call to challenge the misconception that sexual violence is exclusively a woman’s issue. If Mr Harris and his Government colleagues take action on these issues, there is potential for real change. Whether or not they will remains to be seen, but this is a very positive start.

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