Women’s Safety on College Campuses

Women’s Safety on College Campuses

3 wise practices all college administrators should adopt to effectively address sexual assault prevention & response

Trigger Warning: Topics of sexual assault and violence are discussed in the following post.

By: Tess Blake

The Problem on College Campuses

11% of all women on Canadian college campuses reported they were victims of sexual assault, according to a report by Statistics Canada in 2019 (Loriggio, 2020). This is almost three times the rate of men who reported assault that same year. Considering three out of four assaults go unreported, it is likely that this reported number is grossly underestimated (RAINN, 2021). While sexual assault impacts all genders, studies have consistently shown evidence that women and other gender minorities are disproportionately vulnerable, particularly those aged 18-24 (Herrick, 2017). According to the Canadian Federation of Students, the first eight weeks of the school year are when the most sexual assaults occur (2015). Given new students’ unfamiliarity with college campuses, the prevalence of binge-drinking and unsafe partying, and the prevalent beliefs of victim blaming and rape culture that are often still held by many in our society, campus life is not equally safe for all students. The rates of assault among racialized and queer women are typically even higher. 

My Experience as a First Year

As women, we are used to being instructed by our role-models to “watch our drinks,” “go out in groups,” and “text our friends when we get home.” I was thirteen when my mom first told me these things. Every time I go out, I can hear her voice in my head reminding me to stay alert, make smart decisions, and call her if I needed anything. I remember her telling me that as women, we have to protect ourselves, even though we should not have to any more than men.

Moving away from home to a college dorm should be an exciting and fulfilling experience, and most of the time, it is. However, many women (particularly women who are racialized and women with differing abilities) are not only burdened with concerns about living alone for the first time, connecting with social groups, and keeping up with academic studies, but also are burdened with safety concerns that many white, cis-men have the privilege of disregarding altogether. 

College campuses may be addressing sexual assault prevention more consistently and effectively than they did twenty years ago; however, a presentation about consent during orientation week and a cheaply made keychain depicting campus police’s contact information is simply not enough. Systemic issues call for systemic solutions. 

The following solutions are three wise practices found on Canadian campuses that all university administrators should be aware of: bystander intervention training, policymaking regarding reporting systems and accountability, and peer-run programs including “Safewalk” and blue light technology.    

Bystander Intervention Training

The University of Victoria, Carleton University, and Queen’s University offer bystander intervention training in two online formats: “Bringing in the Bystander” and “Step In, Speak Up,” both which are presented throughout the school year to all students. The latter specifically targets new students on campus. Although more research is required on the efficacy of bystander intervention programs in reducing rates of sexual assault (most are relatively new thus research is scarce), a systematic review of 21 studies found that these programs are effective in encouraging students to step-in while witnessing inappropriate behaviour (Kettrey, Marx, & Tanner-Smith, 2019). This can ultimately lead to greater safety levels experienced by women on campus.


There is also a lack of accountability against perpetrators of violence on college campuses due to an alarming level of leniency from college administrations. In a 2018 article, Maclean’s revealed that calls to a 24-7 crisis support line at Mount Allison University were actually directed to the phone of a part-time worker (Schwartz, 2018). The same article also reported that 11-47% of students at a number of universities across Canada have not been informed on how to report an assault (Schwartz, 2018). The second wise practice is clear and more frequent education about how to report assault, along with how to support friends struggling after being assaulted. Universities must also not only adopt zero-tolerance policies on paper, but also in practice. For example, the province of Quebec announced in 2017 that they would invest $23 million towards a ‘zero-tolerance’ campus sexual assault policy five year strategic plan (CBC News, 2017). This requires all post-secondary institutions to adopt a sexual assault policy if they did not have one already, providing a sense of top-down accountability through legal policy. 

Peer-run Safety Programs

Wise practices not only include university-sanctioned bystander programming and policymaking, but also consist of technologies and peer-delivered programs. “Safewalk” and blue light programs are delivered across a number of Canadian campuses, including the University of British Columbia and Western University. “Safewalk” is a program that operates through a buddy-system and is most often student-run, where students can call a number and be met by one or two designated “safewalkers” who will walk the student to their desired location after dark. Blue lights are scattered throughout campuses as well and connect students to emergency services. This is particularly helpful for those who may not have a phone with them to seek assistance. 

All wise practices must recognize intersectionality and how varying nodes of oppression and privilege impact a woman’s sense of safety on campus. International students, students with differing abilities, and low-income students all share different safety concerns, and universities need to recognize the wide array of needs students have. Any anti-violence prevention measures implemented on campus should be on the recommendation of and in consultation with those most vulnerable to gender-based violence. The amplification of society’s most marginalized voices is long overdue. It is time we start listening.

Resources referenced in this article that can be accessed for further information:

11% of female post-secondary students have been sexually assaulted at school: study

Women’s Safety on Campus: How to Be Part of the Solution

Sexual Violence on Campus: Canadian Federation of Students

Bystander Intervention – University of Victoria

Ending sexual violence on campus

Effects of bystander programs on the prevention of sexual assault among adolescents and college students

Quebec to invest $23M for new ‘zero-tolerance’ campus sexual assault policy

Canadian universities are failing students on sexual assault

The Criminal Justice System: Statistics

Staying Safe on Campus

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