Thanks to Fiona Drouet, founder of the charity Emily Test, which tackles Gender-Based Violence in Education, for writing this guest-blog for us. We are delighted that Fiona has just been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list 2020. 

Please allow me to take you back to where our work started. In September 2015 our daughter, Emily Drouet, aged only 17, left to study Law at a university a few hours from our home in Glasgow. She was so excited, an amazing young woman on her way to realising her dream to be a lawyer.

Emily embraced university life, making new friends, partying (probably a lot more than we knew), and exploring a new city. She was flourishing. But sadly, unknown to us, there was a darker side to university life. Emily was subjected to a sustained campaign of physical, psychological and sexual violence at the hands of a fellow student. After a serious assault, during which she feared for her life, she reached out to the university for help but sadly received a sub-standard response. Although she had visible injuries and abuse was suspected, Emily was sent back to her room on her own with no further action taken. Over the seven days that followed, the perpetrator made four unannounced visits to Emily. After his last visit on 17th March 2016, Emily ran screaming to a friend for help saying he had visited, that he had put his hands around her throat again and slapped her. She said she couldn’t take any more, she couldn’t go on. Minutes later our darling daughter took her own life.

Emily isn’t the only girl to experience gender-based violence (GBV). Sadly, there are thousands of others. Research shows that 16 to 24-year-olds are most likely to become victims of GBV, but this age group is also most likely to contain the aggressors. Whilst GBV is prevalent across society, evidence shows that colleges and universities are well placed to play an active role in prevention and intervention. In fact we believe there is a duty of care to provide a safe space where students can live, work, and study.

There is a lot of incredible work going on across Scotland’s institutions – lots of examples of good practice and innovation. However, approaches remain inconsistent, patchy at best. Having worked in this area since losing Emily, researching tirelessly and working with valued partners at Police Scotland, NUS, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Universities Scotland, CDN, UCU and many other valued partners, we believe so much more must be achieved.

Although significant work is under way – some of which was encouraged by the Ministerial letter of guidance that resulted from EmilyTest’s campaign with NUS to better support students affected by GBV, we believe the position remains fragile and dependent on political priorities. Our strong Ministerial leadership in relation to GBV has changed the landscape, asking colleges and universities to evidence their work. This includes measures such as data collection, reporting platforms, signposting to support both on and off campus, campaigns, staff and student training, to mention just a few.

However, we live in uncertain times and a change in government could leave this work extremely vulnerable. It should be acknowledged that many colleges and universities did not need the letter of guidance to encourage action in these areas, but many did – we clearly cannot rely on moral obligation.

That’s where the creation of our GBV Charter comes in – a mark of excellence for tertiary education institutions in terms of their activity in GBV prevention and intervention. We hope this serves as a useful marker both internally and externally. It should assist staff and help students and parents to make an informed choice when it comes to choosing where to study.

We are currently analysing the data from our extensive research, which has ethical approval from the University of Edinburgh. Many focus groups were held with students from various demographics, urban and rural settings, LGBTQI+ and BAME. We even extended the conversations by engaging with males who have been accused of GBV. We have further groups with resident assistants who are faced with regular disclosures of GBV.

Our next stage is to present our draft Charter during consultation/co-creation events with violence against women professionals, further and higher education staff and organisations working with marginalised groups such as LGBTQI+ and minority ethnic GBV services. We understand that for the Charter to be effective, it has to be deliverable, hence engaging with all of our experienced colleagues. After consultation/co-creation we will have an intersectional team of academics from Scotland and beyond to peer review the Charter and its accompanying public report.

I believe Scotland is exceptionally well placed to become the safest country in which to live, work and study and am excited to see the new joined-up approach we can take to eradicate GBV on campuses.

We look forward to working with all of our valued colleagues across the sector, realising our shared passion to see every student thrive on their college or university journey, without fear of GBV.

Our lives will never recover, we will carry this pain with us each and every day. But what we can do is ensure Emily, and so many other girls, did not suffer in vain. In life they may have been silenced but we can use their voices to advocate for change.

Find out more about Emily Test here. 

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