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Perspectives and Discourses on Sexual Harassment in International Higher Education Contexts

This international research project will explore prevalence, manifestations and effects of sexual harassment in the higher education context as well as inquire structural implications such as favorable and prohibitive circumstances for sexual harassment from a student perspective in selected universities in Latin America, Germany, Japan, India and South Korea.

Sexual harassment constitutes a human rights violation and therefore the topic has to be put on the agenda of publicly funded institutions. To effectively address sexual harassment at the university level, more knowledge on prevalence, manifestations and effects as well as on favorable and prohibitive circumstances is required. As sexual harassment is a global phenomenon and universities in many countries (as well as societies as a whole) struggle in addressing the topic, implementing an international perspective on the topic will be very useful for a deeper understanding and very insightful in order to achieve change.

Universities tend to negate the incidence of sexual harassment in institutions with the aim to be considered as open-minded and enlightened. Therefore it is very important to discuss two main topics to be connected with sexual harassment in universities. First, sexual harassment as a phenomenon in universities must be considered and seen in the field of gender violence. Structures of power relations and hierarchical and heteronormative gender relations are reproduced in higher education contexts. On the other hand, sexual harassment is normalized in university contexts. Often it is considered part of the educational system where hierarchical structures and academic dependencies determine relationships between the different member groups of the university.

These two points foster power relations and difficulties in the students and employees' lifes, most of them women* and LGBTIQ, in universities. As power relations are reproduced in universities they are a mirror of cultural practices of the society. It is indispensable to apply an intersectional perspective when investigating sexual harassment in universities and to consider also differences of ethnicity, class, sexual identity, sexual orientation and disabilities. These structures in universities are global because they are based on a patriarchal system.

Project Path

In a first step there will be a survey at all participating universities questioning students on experiences with sexual harassment at the university in order to explore differences and analogies at all participating sites. In order to be able to compare the results, the partner universities have decided to execute the survey among students of social sciences and natural sciences. This will help to understand if different scientific cultures have an impact on the issue.

In this first phase, the results of the survey are not supposed to be representative for the respective national higher education contexts, but will give a first insight on the correlation between contextual factors and phenomena of sexual harassment at universities. The questionnaire was developed at Universidad de Costa Rica, was used there and will now be translated and adapted to the other national/higher education contexts. For the German case the questionnaire was translated from Spanish to German as well as adapted to the German/Freie Universität Berlin context. The questionnaire used for the exploration of sexual harassment in the context of the BMFSFJ study (2005) “Lebenssituation, Sicherheit und Gesundheit von Frauen in Deutschland” was model for the adaption. The questionnaire will be submitted to Freie Universität’s data security official for approval. The results will only be used in the context of the project and will not be shared outside the project.

In a second step, the results will be used for the development of an EU proposal for further research on favorable and prohibitive circumstances as well as recommendations for the elaboration of prevention measures that take in account the different higher education contexts.

The results of the survey and of the overall project will give fruitful insights for the work of Freie Universität’s working group on sexual harassment and the work of the Gender Equality Officer in the field.

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