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External group needed to combat sexual assault in New Zealand universities, researchers say

Researchers have called for an external oversight body in response to the number of sexual assault cases at New Zealand universities.

Otago University PhD students Kayla Stewart and Lily Kay Ross spoke to TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning to discuss their research into the prevalence of sexual violence and how best to address it.

Their findings from a survey of New Zealand university students' sexual experiences, revealed that one in three students surveyed experienced some form of sexual assault, including rape.

It comes after a TVNZ Sunday investigation into the handling of sexual violence allegations at Otago University, in which students reporting allegations of sexual harm felt they were not being taken seriously.

Ms Ross said New Zealand universities are "lagging behind what’s going on in the USA at the moment".

She added that there are "a number of universities trying to figure out policies and procedures" about dealing with sexual assaults and that there "tends to be quite an emphasis on victim support, so putting staff in place at a range of universities to be able to support people after these sorts of events".

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Three women tell Sunday’s Tania Page their stories of sexual violence on campus. Source: Sunday

However, Ms Ross said it was "really important to make sure that there’s a really holistic approach", which includes "making the case for an external oversight body" to combat a potential conflict of interest between the University of Otago's revenue stream and the students' safety.

"I think it's important to keep in mind that universities want to maintain a positive reputation, and they do want students to have positive experiences, but it’s a situation where they have an incentive to try to avoid having to deal with reports.

"They're not really in a position to craft a policy and procedural document that's really going to invite students to come forward when these issues occur, in part because I think because it’s outside the training and the scope of what many university staff members have, which is why it’s so important to have experts involved as well."

She said an external body would be about oversight, but it's also about support, adding that an external body "would be a relief to a lot of the people at universities who might have to deal with these sorts of cases".

Ms Ross said having a clear system and protocols in place would be valuable in providing an "ongoing sense that everybody's on the same page, that information is being distributed in a consistent manner".

The external oversight body would also be "an educational opportunity for students, and not just to teach them about consent, but also to be teaching people that (sexual assaults) is not socially acceptable behaviour".

"The way that we do that is by making sure that when cases are presented, they’re handled well because having an investigation done is a consequence, facing sanctions is a consequence, and that's a part of the equation that’s going to be very tricky to do correctly, and it's why I think it's going to be great to see universities band together and work with some sort of external body to do it well."

Ms Stewart added that one area of concern was the role alcohol played in sexual assault.

"If we took a thousand drunk people and they passed out over the entire city of Dunedin, nothing is going to happen to those people unless a perpetrator comes along.

"Perpetrators are using incapacitation – likely through alcohol – to their advantage, to sexually assault people, so that’s what the issue is here.

"Perpetrators used alcohol incapacitation – which also includes when people are asleep – to sexually assault one in four people, so the message isn’t getting through."

The University of Otago says it has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct by students or staff. The university has declined repeated requests by TVNZ1's Sunday and Breakfast to be interviewed about the issue.

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Otago University PhD students Kayla Stewart and Lily Kay Ross discussed their findings.