Features Student Life

A First Step Towards Building a Culture of Consent

By Silvia Ecclesia

At the beginning of this academic year, three workshops entitled “Building a safe and inclusive community through understanding consent” have been organised for all students and Teaching Assistants to attend. Held by Joëlle Payom from the non-profit Organization ‘Rezalliance’, these workshops are the outcome of months of preparations and collaboration between the Graduate Institute’s Femministe Collective (FC) and Administrative staff. To understand the behind the scenes of this project and why it is important, I interviewed Gaya Raddadi, former FC Student Advocate, Birsu Karaarslan, former FC President, and Joëlle Payom, as well as Favour Imhomoh and Flavian Mèche, current Collective’s President and Vice-President. 

How did it all start?

“It all started from my personal story”, said Birsu. In fact, both she and Gaya obtained their bachelor degree in British Universities where, as stated by Gaya, “it is quite common to have more discussion around consent issues”. Coming from studies in criminology and especially on domestic violence, Birsu has always felt very strongly about issues related to consent, especially in relation to situations where alcohol is involved. Both recognized, coming at the Graduate Institute, that taking action after the fact is not sufficient, preventive solutions are needed. Since Gaya decided to take on the role of Student Advocate for the FC, this problem has always been on the agenda. 

According to Gaya, after having decided that they wanted to hold ‘Consent Workshops’, the first crucial step was to ask for the support of Antenne-H. Dr Laurent Neury as well as several other members of Antenne-H were very supportive: “Without them this wouldn’t have happened” (Birsu). As a first step, Dr Neury helped the FC find Joëlle Payom with which, since April 2021, meetings and discussions have been ongoing to define the format and content of the workshops. 

However, one might ask, why is a consent workshop necessary at the Graduate Institute? All three interviewees – Gaya, Birsu and Joëlle – did not only talk about consent but mentioned the broader scope of the workshop as that of creating a culture of consent. I asked Mrs Payom, what does a culture of consent entail? 

Joëlle: First, it is a culture where everyone feels safe to speak up and feels empowered to set their boundaries. Everything starts with inclusion. That’s why during the workshops I began talking about inclusion. The environment should allow you to say no and listen to your voice. It is a matter of culture and environment: family, school, workplace, society as a whole are all places where consent culture should be taught. 

As an educational institution, and especially one which is arguably going to form several future leaders, diplomats, employees in International Organizations, and policy-makers, bringing the right mindset is crucial. Rezalliance, the NGO founded by Mrs Payom, aims at achieving inclusive workplaces. However, “we need to act even before we enter the workplace. Students are the future” (Joëlle). Awareness has increased over the past fewyears but now  behaviours need to change too. In addition, our university is host to more than a hundred different nationalities which entails different cultures, values, and educational backgrounds, thus “it is essential to have a common understanding of what consent means” (Birsu). 

After all, the issue is not very far from us, arguably quite the opposite. Less than a month ago, multiple cases of sexual harassment at the University of Lausanne has been initially silenced to only come out later, putting in question the entire university’s management of harassment cases. In Switzerland, there is no data available on the number of harassment cases in universities due to the lack of a central structure and of studies on the issue. However, episodes like the recent one in Lausanne are not rare at all, and awareness needs to be raised. Sadly, a study by Amnesty International shows how the number of reported cases in the country is estimated to be very low compared to the real number of people who have been subjected to harassment, and, even when reported, it often goes unpunished as it is very difficult to prove. 

Needless to say, the human consequences of not having proper mechanisms in place to prevent such cases is grave. Moreover, the reputation of a university suffers greatly once harassment episodes effectively happen. For all of these reasons, providing education and raising awareness around consent issues is needed at the Graduate Institute as in every other university. As additional proof, the students’ response after the workshops has been very positive. 

Gaya: A fair amount of people wanted it. After the workshop, we had an incredibly positive response, especially from the first-year students. They were enthusiastic that it was provided during the orientation day. It makes them feel better knowing that there are these kinds of considerations around their safety. 

Several students also reached out to Mrs Payom to show their appreciation for the session. 

Joëlle: What happened is that after the workshop I stayed one hour more to discuss with people who came and told me their stories. After the very first lecture, a group of young boys came and said that the workshop was great as they thought that before they were probably behaving wrongly. 

On one hand, there is still a lot of room for improvement. The ‘lecture-like’ format was good as a first experiment to gauge students’ engagement, however, smaller workshops as well as sessions targeted to specific problems (such as the LGBTQ+ community, racial minorities, or alcohol-related issues) would be better in the future. Moreover, the non-mandatory nature of the sessions lowered students’ participation and “since it was not mandatory the people in the room were already quite sensitive to the issue” (Gaya). 

On the other hand though, the workshops saw around 250 students participating. A small number compared to the almost 1000 students enrolled at the Graduate Institute overall, but a huge achievement as a first step for creating a culture of consent. The hard work of Gaya and Birsu paid off and opened the way for “building a safer and inclusive community through understanding consent”.  

It is now necessary to make this first step flourish and support further the creation of a consent culture through future activities and awareness raising. “It is good to have these types of workshops but if it stops there it is useless, we tend to forget” (Joëlle). 

Favour and Flavian, current FC’s President and Vice-President, are already making plans for the future, trying to put in place some of the improvements mentioned above, but also expanding the conversation. The creation of a specific workshop for Student Houses’ residents, as well as the creation of specific modules for all students to complete are some of their ideas. In the meantime, next semester, the FC will hold a ‘Female Pleasure Awareness Week’ covering topics such as body-positivity, consent, and sexual education. 

The dialogue is not over. The creation of a consent culture is not something that happens from one day to the other. However, as recognized by Joëlle, the fact that two young women came to the Graduate Institute, decided that they wanted to raise awareness around this issue, and managed to make it happen is an admirable achievement. 

What do you hope for the future of the consent workshops? 

Gaya: Our goal is really to create a culture where the problem wouldn’t even arise. If we can minimise the risks, why not doing it? It is important not only in the scope of University; we are the future political leaders and if we do not understand the basics of consent the problem is going to expand outside of our bubble. 

Birsu: I hope we have been able to give it the voice it deserves and that people will not get discouraged but continue it. To advocate for a safer community, we still have a lot to do from all sides. But at least we can start with something and give future students a platform from where to begin. 

The interviewees would like to thank Dr Laurent Neury, Kasia Czarlinska Wasiukiewicz, Carine Leu Bonvin, Claudia Saviaux Druliolle, Ximena Osorio Garate, and Laura Mauricio for their support in making the workshops happen. 

Consent is simple as tea.

Image by rawpixel.com.

1 comment on “A First Step Towards Building a Culture of Consent

  1. Pingback: “It’s easier when we have 30 cases” – handling harassment on campus – The Graduate Press

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