A NOWSA Retrospective

UTS Women’s Collective

Chloe Malmoux-Setz, UTS Women’s Collective Convener

Last week, members of the UTS Women’s Collective gathered in Canberra to meet other Women’s Officers for an inspiring and comforting week. As women’s student representatives, our duties and responsibilities are unique, leaving us with very few people who truly understand the stress and trauma we go experience. The strength of this community was overwhelmingly consoling, especially as we stood in solidarity against sexual assault on university campuses.

One of the hot topics circulated at the Network of Women’s Students Australia (NOWSA) Annual Conference was the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Survey on sexual assault at universities. It was interesting discussing, with other student representatives, how their universities were approaching the lead up to the survey release and the negative media attention. Some Women’s Collectives had a larger presence on campus, and could therefore have a larger impact on the student body, whilst other collectives had not been contacted or involved in their university’s response to the survey. Through this discussion, a common theme of disengagement with Women’s Collectives was highlighted, revealing that universities do not take the student voice seriously.

One keynote speaker, Sofie Karasek, talked about her experiences as an activist in the USA Hunting Ground Project. By partnering with End Rape on Campus, she helped make a difference in her state. Despite activists demanding the same for the past 20 years, her workshop gave hope to NOWSA activists — as she was able to make a breakthrough. Nina Funnell’s workshop was incredibly heart-warming. Every day, she puts herself out there and works with people who have experienced sexual assault, and helps make their voices heard. Nina showed us that student activists have allies in media, who can help us raise awareness about sexual assault, and who hold universities accountable for their inactive responses.

NOWSA provided us with an outlet to share with, support, and learn from each other.  Everyone had their own skills and passions, creating a diverse and vibrant community. From the knowledge shared at NOWSA, the UTS Women’s Collective has taken away many useful tips and methods that will enrich our community’s presence and actions on campus.

Lana Miletich, Women’s Collective Member

How I would describe NOWSA in three words: enlightening, exhausting, and damn cold. And whilst two of those adjectives have negative connotations, it was one of the most formative and exciting weeks of my teenage years.

When talking about my personal development, NOWSA fostered an environment that forced me to confront my privilege with an intensity I’d never before experienced. That reinforced the profound necessity for privileged people to stay quiet when discussing the issues of marginalised groups. This was highlighted in the various panels in which white speakers would speak for people of colour and additionally reinforced by powerful statements from the People of Colour and Queer People of Colour caucuses that emphasised their constant struggle with racism and the need for white people to educate themselves, rather than placing the burden of education onto people of colour. It’s not their job to teach their oppressors about their struggles and their allies about how to best support them. Educating yourself is the first step towards becoming a useful accomplice.

By thoroughly exploring intersectionality within feminism, the conference made me become more aware of the areas mainstream feminism must improve in to as achieve equality. Allyship must be redefined to eliminate tokenistic behaviour. I’m so glad the Women’s Collective gave me the opportunity to go to Canberra, because I have learned lessons I will take with me for the rest of my life.

Leya Reid, UTSSA Women’s Officer

Inclusivity was a powerful theme explored over the week. The organisers stressed the importance of remaining courteous to those present at the conference. It was not enough, however, to entirely prevent causing offence or uncomfortable disagreements.

When the agenda covered panels on intersectional feminism and the power of language, we were anticipating educational and enlightening discussions, drawing on both academic discourse and personal experience. I was disappointed when gendered language was used carelessly by panellists and when POC voices were drowned out by the majority-Anglo audience.

When we attended workshops on racial microaggressions and sexual assault affecting POC, I expected an attentive audience keen to learn how to become better allies, and yet once again I was disappointed to see just a handful of non-POC attendees. These concerns were addressed during caucuses and conference floor, and ultimately served as learning curves for the organisers of NOWSA 2018.

Additionally, the needs of people with accessibility needs were not adequately addressed this year, because conference organisers failed to make available transportation to and from the accommodation. Most of this stemmed from disorganisation as the final details of the conference were not finalised until a few days before. This may not present itself next year, as there is talk of making NOWSA an organisation that functions year-round.

So, let’s hope that next year’s organisers make a conscientious effort to further encourage the attendance and participation of marginalised identities, those that identify as gender diverse and those with accessibility needs.

Alana Braxton-Boal, Women’s Collective Member

NOWSA was a great opportunity to connect with and hear the voices of a wide range of talented, intelligent, and passionate women and non-binary people from around Australia. Despite the Canberra cold, the friendly and welcoming attitudes from collectives as far as Tasmania brought warmth into each day.

The panels and discussions hosted various people with a wide range of opinions and outlooks, which I found immensely helpful in understanding and unpacking difficult issues. Hearing these stories directly women and non-binary people was particularly meaningful, and I am thankful to those people for having the courage to share their experiences.

Hearing from so many accomplished activists during the conference really sparked inspiration, but also put into context how long the fight for equality has already been raging on. Hearing from Australian activist Nina Funnel and her work on the #EndRapeOnCampus campaign was of great significance to me, and highlighted the important work being done to address the problem of sexual assault on university campuses. With the AHRC sexual assault survey coming out early this semester, I hope the momentum of her movement can be maintained and real change can emerge.

I found the conference a huge instigator for personal reflection, and I encourage others to sign up for next year’s NOWSA conference. Thank you especially to the UTS Women’s collective for the opportunity to attend and work together on such important issues.

Claire, Women’s Collective Member

After a week of panels, protests, workshops, and a screening of the much-maligned Hunting Ground (2015), a group of disheveled, tired, and hungry university students, including some very overworked Grievance Officers, returned to Sydney in a magnificent coach (not of the horse drawn kind). And yet it started off so well…

The conference opened with a panel of three women from the ACT Legislative Assembly. They spoke at length about the sexist representations of women in media. Naturally Julia Gillard and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s names came up, but I felt they were missing something important: even right-wing women can be victims of sexism. So, I stuck my hand up (and I was the first to do so; it appears that some women were afraid to voice their opinions even in a safe space) and asked, “What about Peta Credlin [Tony Abbott’s former Chief of Staff]? Don’t you think sexism underpins the assumption that a beautiful woman cannot have a close relationship with her boss without there being a sexual component?” I was gratified to see several members and one panelist nodding as I spoke. Caroline Le Couteur MLA, a representative from the Greens, responded by saying that was “fair comment”, whilst Elizabeth Lee MLA, a representative of the Liberal Party of Australia, related it back to her own experience as a practicing lawyer. She claimed that women are underrepresented in senior law positions, and when a woman does manage break that glass ceiling there is often a perception that she must be sleeping with someone in authority.

NOWSA was an eye-opening experience. It woke me up to the division that exists even within the feminist movement itself. The overall point of the conference, which is to establish a base from which female identifying or non-binary university students can argue for their rights on campus, was drowned out in favour of factional infighting. Until we address these deeply ingrained issues, we will never affect the kind of change we desire.