Covid-19 as an Amplifier of Sexual Violence: What can we do?
University students are particularly vulnerable to multiple forms of sexual violence. Currently, the issues surrounding sexual violence are amplified by the social distancing measures due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Thus, it is now time to start conversations, reduce stigma, and support survivors.
Sexual Violence in university communities and in times of Covid-19
The current Covid-19 crisis is not only a major threat for the public's physical health, but it is also a serious threat for mental health. The social isolation used to flatten the curve of the covid-19 pandemic imposes various risks on individuals’ mental health. One major factor is the increase in domestic violence1. We are all trying our best to follow the mantra “Stay Home!”, but home is not a safe place for everyone. Individuals facing domestic mental, physical, or sexual violence now do not have the option anymore to escape the violence they are facing at home. In general, university students constitute a group which is particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. In some circumstances, up to 26% of students report having experienced sexual assault of some form2. In winter 2019/2020 there have been multiple sexual offenses within the Leiden University community. This inherent vulnerability raises the question how students are being affected by the current lock down. University facilities have been closed for several weeks so that students often have no other option than to spend most of their time in their student flats which are usually shared with multiple other students. Does being exposed to one’s flat mates the majority of the time leave students especially vulnerable to sexual offences? How does the general stress caused by the pandemic play into that? Which effect do collapsing social networks (due to the social distancing measures) have on this issue? Though we do not know the answers to these questions yet, we do know that all these aspects are potential risk factors which could make students even more vulnerable to sexual violence in times of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The consequences and the abatement of sexual violence
Experiencing sexual violence can have detrimental consequences for the victim, possibly resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), strong feelings of shame and guilt, depression, and substance abuse 3. It has also been shown that this possible deterioration of the victim’s mental health can have detrimental effects on academic performance in university students4. This, coupled with the high vulnerability of university students and increased risk factors in times of social distancing, calls for an urgent intervention by the university to both protect and support their students. Three pillars should be addressed in order to tackle the issue of sexual violence: prevention, reporting, and support of victim-survivors. There are a variety of prevention workshops and programs that can be incorporated into university life, for instance during orientation weeks. Stichting Our Bodies Our Voice can provide such workshops – you may remember them from the Diversity Symposium in January 2020.
Supporting Survivors: Support groups as a community-based approach
In terms of support, Leiden University already has important programs in place in order to support students, especially in times of Covid-19. For instance, student psychologists provide counseling especially tailored for study related problems and online support groups provide support and community building in times of social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the topic of sexual violence needs special attention because survivors are often traumatized and suffer from stigmatization. One way to offer support for survivors are support groups which offer safe spaces in which participants can speak openly about their experience under supervision of licensed psychologists. This contributes to the individual healing process and it creates an opportunity for building a community in which the topic of sexual violence is de-stigmatized and in which survivors can support each other by sharing both struggles and coping mechanisms. In Amsterdam, the project CARE has been running since the beginning of 2020, which comprises a support group offering a safe space and a judgement-free community for survivors of sexual violence. At current times, they are offering their sessions online. So far, they have gotten the feedback from the participants, that “they are very grateful to have a safe space where they can be heard and understood, especially since they share a common background as survivors”. At Leiden University, we want to follow their example and offer a support group for survivors of sexual violence. In close collaboration with CARE-Amsterdam, the Diversity Office of Leiden University will launch the pilot project CARE-Leiden in the first semester of the next academic year (2020/2021) offering a support group for students (and possibly also staff) of Leiden University. More specific information on that will follow in due time.
In case you have experienced sexual violence and are struggling, please reach out for help! Centrum Seksueel Geweld
In case you would like to get in contact with us, please do! email@example.com
Click here, to find an interview with the chairwoman of “Our Bodies Our Voice” and a booklet on sexual violence issued by Leiden University.
3Reed, E., Amaro, H., Matsumoto, A., & Kaysen, D. (2009). The relation between interpersonal violence and substance use among a sample of university students: Examination of the role of victim and perpetrator substance use. Addictive behaviors, 34(3), 316-318.