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Medical Students call for clearer pathways for reporting sexual assault

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The Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) has raised serious concerns about recent incidents of two medical students falling victim to alleged sexual assaults at Royal Darwin Hospital. 

AMSA, the peak representative body for Australia’s 17,000 medical students, believes that both the historical institutional culture of dominance in medicine and lack of clear reporting pathways are to blame for the ongoing problem of sexual harassment and assault. 

While two doctors have been stood down over the separate incidents at Royal Darwin Hospital and clinical placements have been suspended in the department, AMSA says there is a desperate need for wider action to see an end to this behaviour. 

“Unfortunately we continue to hear of stories of sexual harassment and assault of students on clinical placements. It is not uncommon; however, more often than not, it goes unreported. The stories we see in the news are only scraping the surface of a much larger systemic problem,” AMSA President Rob Thomas said.

Rob Thomas believes that there are many reasons that students feel they are better off not reporting experiences of sexual harassment and stems from: a lack of satisfactory mechanisms of addressing inappropriate behavior; fear of reprisal; and a negative impact on their studies.

Recently at the request of Australia’s 39 universities, the Australian Human Rights Commission has conducted a national, independent survey of university students to gain greater insight into the nature, prevalence and reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.

The Australian Human Rights Commission found that across all university settings, the Commission found that women were three times as likely as men to be sexually assaulted in 2015 or 2016 and almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed in a university setting in 2016.

The Commission’s research also revealed that most students who were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed at university in 2015 and 2016 did not make a formal report or complaint to their university.

Rob Thomas says the problems associated with medical students reporting sexual assault is exacerbated because they: “exist in an awkward interim space between the university where their degrees are accredited and hospitals where they undertake their clinical placements.”

The result is that the dual reporting structures of each institution’s sexual harassment policies are often either inaccessible or difficult to enforce.  AMSA believes that the solution requires a cooperative and independent process between Universities and health services.  

An important part of changing this side to the culture of medicine will be improved knowledge, access and effect of incident reporting structures and mechanisms for dealing with inappropriate behaviour.

According to current statistics, one in three Australian women over the age of 15 will experience physical violence, and almost one in five will experience sexual violence. Living safe and free from violence is everyone’s right; reducing violence is everyone’s responsibility.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault is: 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

MEREDITH HORNE

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