ots of students find themselves doing a year abroad these days: language students generally have to, and many others choose to. It’s a time for personal and academic development, but it can also be a challenge.
Thrust into a world where we know no one and aren’t native speakers of the language, we can feel very isolated.
In October 2014, in the middle of my first term in Tours, France, I was groped in the street by a complete stranger, and followed to my bus stop in spite of my insistence that he leave me alone. The experience was extremely upsetting.
I felt powerless, and that even if there were something I could do, I wouldn’t really know how to follow up.
My university had not informed me of support channels or hotlines, and had never spoken about problems with sexism or harassment in relation to the year abroad.
The truth is, whether at home or abroad, most young women will experience sexual harassment at some point, even if it’s only a dirty “compliment” shouted at them in the street.
Many students I’ve spoken to say their experience of sexual harassment was no worse on their placement than anywhere else – but language barriers heightened feelings of vulnerability.
To ask for help or report harassment or discrimination in a foreign language is an intimidating prospect for even the most fluent of speakers, and university services can feel distant.
Between 40 and 50% of women in EU countries experience sexual harassment at work, according to UN Women.
The issue is clearly a big problem in the countries covered by Erasmus+, the European student exchange programme. Just this week, two French women on the Erasmus programme were sexually abused in Turkey.
When it comes to actual physical and/or sexual violence, according to surveys by UN Women (pdf), 40% of German women have experienced violence in their lifetime, compared with 31.9% in Italy, 38% in Portugal, and 43.5% in Finland.
In the 12 months preceding the UN’s survey, 3.4% of French women had experienced physical and/or sexual violence, while in Spain the figure was 9.6%.
The EU itself acknowledges (pdf) that eradicating violence against women is crucial for protecting women’s human rights.
Knowing all this, what services are available to vulnerable year abroad students?
A University of Oxford spokesperson says: “Oxford students who study abroad through schemes like Erasmus are given comprehensive advice about how to deal with any problems or emergencies they may face when abroad.” This is available to students online and in print resources.
But Jessie Spivey, an Oxford University student currently on a British Council assistantship scheme in Andorra, says that although she is sure welfare systems are in place, she feels badly informed about support channels.
Here are three more allegations made by students whose names have been removed:
• A student at a Russell Group university in the north of England says that in spite of gender equality on campus being an important issue on a national level, it appeared to go largely overlooked by year abroad organisers and support staff.
• A student at a university in the west of England describes placement support as infrequent and says it was never made clear how to communicate issues.
• A student on a placement at the University of Hamburg, in Germany, says: “If something were ever to happen to me, I would have no idea where to go.”
Annie Tidbury, women’s officer at University College London Union, says: “At UCLU all our services are extended to students on a year abroad, for example, they can still get in touch with the sabbatical officers or email the rights and advice centre.”
But Tidbury acknowledges: “It’s clear we need to be doing more to offer information and support specifically designed for students on a year abroad,” adding that this would be worked out in the coming year.
Many UK universities have strong zero tolerance policies on sexual harassment, and they should take seriously the concerns of students abroad.
If you’re a student undertaking or preparing for a year abroad and are concerned about sexual harassment, ask your university to clarify communication channels so you know who to talk to if an issue arises, and confide in friends and family.
It may also be helpful to speak to a phone helpline about your problems – a quick Google will tell you whether your university has a global student assistance helpline. If you prefer to use an external service, Rape Crisis Network Europeallows you to look up hotlines by country.
- Rebecca Pinnington is a third-year modern languages student who submitted this blog for our Blogging Students series. If you’d like to submit a blog pitch, take a look at these guidelines.