Senate House, where the discussion on reforming the disciplinary procedure will take placeLouis Ashworth

Intimate partner abuse (IPA) is common, highly damaging and extremely dangerous. It affects one in four women during their lives as well as many men and non-binary people. The police in England have made it a priority and both the Prime Minister and the Duchess of Cornwall have been outspoken in their concern on the subject.

Universities in England are lagging behind. The age group most commonly affected by IPA is 16-24, the group to which most students also belong, and there have been several well-publicised cases of IPA amongst students in the last few years, my own included. Yet, even with the current cultural shift towards other forms of abuse and harassment being taken more seriously, most English universities, including Cambridge, are still not talking about IPA.  

“The unpredictability and chaos which arose severely impacted my mental health and ability to cope”

Last week, three other students and I, including the Graduate Union women’s officer, released a report on what we felt were the main issues with the current sexual assault and harassment policies here at Cambridge, along with recommendations for improvements. One major criticism we had was that there is a complete lack of acknowledgment of IPA as a risk to students.

There is no training for staff on how to support students who suffer it and no protocols for colleges or university staff to follow when situations arise. When I reported my ex-partner for IPA, my college seemed to have little idea of what to do. Regulations were repeatedly implemented and then amended or removed. Over twenty members of staff became involved, some of whom made it clear they did not believe me, and fell out with those who did.

The unpredictability and chaos which arose severely impacted my mental health and ability to cope with all that was happening. In the end, I transferred to a different college, after taking seven months out from my PhD. Since then, many other Cambridge students have confided in me about their experiences of reporting IPA to their college or to the University, and none of them were much better than mine.

Although incoming students here are usually able to attend workshops on consent and sexual assault, there is no training on IPA or how to spot the warning signs. The typical view is that it is ‘simply’ about physical violence and so it is easy for people who have not experienced abuse in a relationship to think, “if someone hits me, I will just leave”.

The reality is much more complex. Violence often comes some time into an abusive relationship, by which point the victim has usually been manipulated and brainwashed into being dependent on their abuser and into believing the violence is their own fault. Often, they will have been isolated from their friends so no one realises what is going on until it is too late, which is why education on the early warning signs is so important. The social aspect of universities, especially the nature of the collegiate system at Cambridge, can also make it easy for perpetrators to keep close to their victims. They can attend the same social events and spend every night with them without anything looking out of the ordinary.

It is of utmost importance that Cambridge, and other universities in England, acknowledge the risks of IPA to students and provide support for those who suffer it. There needs to be a clear protocol for the University and colleges to follow when IPA is disclosed, which protects victims both physically and mentally. This ought to include involving only a minimum number of staff members, who are trained in how to support victims. Students should be educated in how to spot the warning signs of abuse both in their own relationships and the relationships of others, and a clear reporting pathway should be available to them. Finally, the role of independent sexual violence advisers at universities, including the sexual assault and harassment adviser here at Cambridge, should be expanded to cover IPA.


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Fortunately, we are not the only ones calling for these changes. Just last week, the University of Strathclyde released a toolkit for Scottish universities in dealing with what they call gender-based violence, including IPA, and the Scottish government is providing £400,000 towards its implementation. This follows the campaign of Fiona Drouet, whose daughter Emily tragically committed suicide at the University of Aberdeen after being abused by her boyfriend. In addition, the universities of Sussex, Worcester and Cardiff have publicly declared their support for students who suffer IPA.

IPA affects a large number of young people and can have long-term physical and mental health impacts on victims, or worse. Every week in England and Wales, two women are murdered by their partners or ex-partners and three women commit suicide as a result of IPA. By not having any protocol in place to help protect students from it, or support them if and when they do suffer it, the University is letting us down. I implore Cambridge to take a stand against IPA and better protect its students. If it does, other universities in England might just follow and as such, many young lives could be helped, or even saved.

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