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‘It makes a huge difference if it is possible to have conversations about social safety and the responsibilities that come with it. That triggers changes at different levels,’ says Gabriella Thompson, co-founder of the Our Bodies Our Voice Foundation (OBOV) and partner of the UvA's Central Diversity Office (CDO).

Our Bodies Our Voice is dedicated to preventing sexual violence and creating a culture of consent at universities. OBOV has been offering fully funded workshops and training courses for staff and students at all UvA faculties since 2019 with financial support from the CDO and other partners. We spoke to Gabriella as part of Orange the World, the global campaign to end violence against women and girls, which takes place every year from November 25 to December 10.

Why is your mission so important, especially in higher education?

'Sexual violence is a global problem, 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence over the course of their lifetime. Here in the Netherlands, 53% of women and 19% of men experience sexually transgressive behaviour. Eleven per cent of women are raped during their time at university. Figures that reflect the current reality, including the situation at universities, where several specific factors increase the risk of transgressive behaviour.

For instance, students are often still learning how to set boundaries and effectively communicate them. There are also huge differences between individuals in terms of the ideas about consent they have learned at home. Students are still adapting to the fast pace of their studies; they may be living on their own for the first time and suddenly find themselves in new environments with new forms of social interactions. There isn't always time for self-reflection, and some people may not have a support network. Employees can also be vulnerable, due to factors like power imbalances or high workloads. We offer workshops and training sessions to teach students and staff about consent and help them become  active bystanders, but it's also crucial to simply facilitate the conversation about these issues.'

Why is that so important?

'In many cases, we still don't have the necessary common language or understanding of these issues, and lack safe spaces to discuss them. The training courses and workshops provide a safe space to explore and learn. OBOV also tries to make an impact by issuing policy recommendations and engaging with student boards at universities. For example, our recommendations lead to awareness campaigns, improved reporting procedures and efforts to expand existing support options. These steps are all equally important. However, many universities are still at the start of the process and have a long way to go. Time and again, we see just how much difference it makes when a university addresses even one of the issues regarding personal safety and security. It helps give staff and students a sense that the university is taking their concerns and boundaries seriously and wants to help and make sure everyone feels comfortable in the classroom or workplace.

So what's the greatest challenge ahead?

'Acknowledgement. Universities need to acknowledge that the numbers speak for themselves, and that sexually transgressive behaviour also occurs within their own walls. Admitting that you should have done things differently or are actually part of the problem isn't easy and involves hard work. People can have a lot of blind spots, shame or a fear of reputational damage. The thing is, acknowledging a problem and wanting to solve it is actually a powerhouse move. We have been getting more requests for training courses and workshops since the #MeToo movement and growing media attention for situations like at The Voice Of Holland. People want to contribute to real change, and institutions are increasingly aware that they need to address social safety at various levels.'

Could you talk us through one of the OBOV workshops? What can staff and students expect to learn?

'Our most popular workshop is the Boundaries, Communication & Consent Workshop. The workshop is designed to help and empower participants to understand and communicate their own personal boundaries in social situations and recognise other people's boundaries. We also focus on active listening and discuss the various available support resources inside and outside the university. How should you respond when someone tells you they have been experiencing sexually transgressive behaviour? What can you do to help?

We'll be exploring issues like victim blaming in more depth and providing important figures and theory on the topic. Besides this workshop, we also offer 7 other training courses for staff and students, including a course on allyship and an inclusive teaching course. We can also tailor workshops and training courses to suit specific target groups or needs. Please feel free to get in touch and ask about the options.'

Click here for an overview of the various free workshops and training courses offered by Our Bodies Our Voice.