Equality institute to consult with universities to tackle transgressive behaviour

Equality institute to consult with universities to tackle transgressive behaviour
Students during university exams. Credit: Belga

The Institute for Gender Equality (IGVM) is expected to sit down with actors from the academic world to discuss transgressive behaviour in higher education following reports of abuse of power in recent weeks.

Students and staff members of several universities, including the universities of Ghent (UGent) and Brussels (VUB), have shared stories of professors and doctoral students' behaving in an inappropriate way or sexually harassing those in ranks below them.

"Since the beginning of my mandate, I have been working hard to reduce violence in society. It is a huge task, because the roots of violence are so deep-rooted," said State Secretary for Equal Opportunities Sarah Schlitz, who was questioned by MPs wanting to know, among other things, whether she is thinking about a global approach to the problem.

"It manifests itself in different ways but is all interconnected, within the same continuum, and is never better than in hierarchical and power relations."

In response to the testimonies being shared, Schlitz launched several steps to tackle the issue, which she highlighted is neither new nor isolated.

"A study conducted in 2019 by the University of Liege revealed, among other things, that more than one in five female students had experienced attempted rape during their studies. These figures are chilling."

Targeted action and combining powers

Schlitz stressed that, in order to solve the problem, the battle has to be fought together with the academic institutions and with the competent federal entities.

As part of a collaborative solution, the Institute for Gender Equality (IGVM) will meet with the contact points of the different universities and colleges in the country to discuss transgressive behaviour in higher education.

"My intention is to make the expertise of the Institute available to higher education institutions, which has already mediated and assisted victims in the recent case at the VUB."

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Various pilot projects will also be launched against sexual violence on campuses. Schlitz is working on the deployment of new Centres for the Care of Victims of Sexual Violence (CPVS), mostly located in student cities (Liège, Brussels, Leuven, Ghent, Antwerp, Namur).

These will cooperate with local actors such as student associations, student facilities, hotlines, and other help services, to create a network that gathers the expertise of all actors.

Earlier in the day, a group of signatories, including professors, scientists, administrative and technical staff and students from universities across the country published a white card in Le Soir demanding higher education institutions to make the fight against gender-based and sexual violence a priority in practice and not just in words.

Earlier in the week, the Flemish government already announced it would set up an independent reporting point to process complaints of sexual harassment in an effort to change the current fragmented system, which currently leaves many victims not knowing where to turn.

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