#MeToo and the need for safe spaces in academia by Brenda Rodríguez, Bruna Martinez and Vira Mistry

We hope this article leads to a larger discussion about sexual harassment in academia and the urgent work of creating a safe and inclusive environment for all of the members of the ISS community.

Initiated back in 2006 by African-American civil rights activist Tamara Burke, the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017 during the sexual misconduct scandal of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein when actress Alyssa Milano asked her Twitter followers from across the world to share their experiences of sexual harassment. As the hashtag went viral, a number of others also emerged, shedding light on sexual harassment in specific sectors. This included the #MeTooAcademia and #ScienceToo hashtags that highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment in academic spaces and the need for change.

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment[1] exist in every sector, and academia is not unaffected by this. A report released by UN Women in 2018 titled ‘Towards an end to sexual harassment: the urgency and nature of change in the era of #MeToo’ shows that 55% of women in the European Union have experienced sexual harassment at least once since the age of 15. Amongst these women, 32% identified somebody from their employment context—a colleague, a supervisor, or a customer—as the perpetrator.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the Swedish Research Council in 2018 published an international report on sexual harassment in universities. The research analysed 800 publications on sexual harassment during the period 1966-2018. The study concluded that sexual harassment takes place in all disciplines of academia and is reported by students, doctoral candidates, and faculty members alike. Women, especially younger women, women with precarious employment conditions, and those belonging to ethnic and sexual minority groups, are more exposed to sexual harassment than others. Underreporting is also very common.

The study also stated that there was evidence of women who had experienced varied forms of harassment having to deal with physical, psychological and professional consequences such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, physical pain, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, increased alcohol use, impaired career opportunities, reduced work motivation, etcetera. How this is affecting the overall work environment and organisational culture in academia remains under-researched.

Focusing on our local context in the Netherlands, a recent study commissioned by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) showed that unwanted behaviour is prevalent in Dutch academia, with cases ranging from sexual harassment to physical and verbal threats, denigration, and exclusion. Another report by the Dutch unions for the science sector FNV and VAWO pointed out that four in ten university staff members are affected by bullying, intimidation, gossip, and abuse of power. While gender plays an important role in cases of undesirable behaviour, this situation is often exacerbated when gender intersects with other axes of oppression such as race, age, sexuality, religion, and ability.

Fighting sexual harassment at the ISS

Critical academic spaces like ISS are not exempt from cases of harassment (sexual or otherwise), bullying and discrimination that continue to plague academic spaces in the Netherlands and worldwide. In addition, the ISS draws researchers and students from all walks of life. This year, as in many other years, ISS welcomed a batch of approximately 150 MA students from over 50 countries. In such a cross-cultural setting, interpersonal interactions are enriching and exciting; however, they can also run the risk of resulting in different types of undesirable behaviour.

So what are we doing at ISS to address such situations and prevent them from happening? At the institutional level, ISS has set up various organs to provide support and address issues of inequality, discrimination and safety for both students and staff, such as the Welfare Office, the ISS Counselling Team, the Institute Council, and the Diversity and Inclusion Team. Additionally, the student body’s Gender Committee and the Sexual Diversity Committee have been working towards creating a more inclusive and safe community.

It’s worth noting that for the past 25 years, the Welfare Office provides a workshop on cross-cultural communication as part of the orientation programme for MA students, establishing a precedent for what is acceptable—or not—for the ISS community. And ISS is also commissioning experts to help it break out of the cycle of harassment and abuse. During orientation week in September last year, the ISS Counselling Team collaborated with Know It, Name It, Love It, an organization that seeks to build safer, better and truly inclusive communities and organizations through workshops and trainings. They facilitated a workshop for the incoming students on how to build a safe and inclusive environment. By using concepts of positionality, intersectionality and empathy, they provided strategies on how to minimize the potential for unwanted behaviour.

The most concrete goal of the workshop was the creation of the ‘Pillars of Our Community’, a set of guidelines developed by the new batch of MA students that laid the foundation for how to engage and interact with each other in a caring, safe, and respectful way, as well as to create an understanding of a collective responsibility to hold each other accountable when necessary.

Most of our examples are targeted at MA students, and we recognise there is more to be done both at a ground and institutional level, including sensitising work with other members of the ISS community such as PhD researchers and academic and administrative staff. Some of the ways that higher education spaces can confront and improve their response to sexual harassment is the creation and implementation of sexual harassment training programs aimed at students and staff that be conducted over a longer period of time. Additionally, they can review current policies, protocols and reporting mechanisms, promote a culture that discourages all forms of sexual harassment, and hold perpetrators accountable.

[1] According to UN Women, sexual harassment is “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another.”
FNV and VAWO (2019) “Sociale veiligheid medewerkers universiteiten” https://www.fnv.nl/nieuwsbericht/sectornieuws/fnv-overheid/2019/05/helft-universiteitspersoneel-ervaart-sociaal-onvei
Naezer, Marijke; Van den Brink, Marieke; Benschop, Yvonne (2019) “Harassment in Dutch academia: Exploring manifestations, facilitating factors, effects and solutions”, Commissioned by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) https://www.lnvh.nl/uploads/moxiemanager/LNVH_rapport__lsquo_Harassment_in_Dutch_academia__Exploring_manifestations__facilitating_factors__effects_and_solutions_rsquo_.pdf
Purna Sen, Eunice Borges, Estefania Guallar, and Jade Cochran (2018) “Towards an end to sexual harassment: The urgency and nature of change in the era of #MeToo”, UN Women https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2018/11/towards-an-end-to-sexual-harassment
Swedish Research Council (2018) “Sexual harassment in academia – An international research review”, https://www.vr.se/english/analysis/reports/our-reports/2018-11-30-sexual-harassment-in-academia.html

About the authors:

Brenda RodriguezBruna Martinez and Vira MistryBrenda Rodríguez Cortés is a PhD candidate at ISS working on gender and sexuality, ISS MA ‘14 alumna and a member of the ISS Counselling Team. Bruna Martinez and Vira Mistry are co-founders of Know It, Name It, Love It, and ISS MA ‘18 alumnae.

Using youth-led peer research to break the silence on adolescent sexuality in Bulgaria by Rutger van Oudenhoven, Kristen Cheney, and Kristina Nenova

In Bulgarian schools, the topic of sex education is contentious and often even avoided, leading to a lack of proper knowledge and understanding of sexuality among young people. An innovative research project tried to address this gap by training adolescents as peer researchers to gather information on how young Bulgarians perceived their relationships with others in their community. This led to a study revealing that young Bulgarians felt the need for better sexual education and the creation of ‘safe spaces’ where young people can discuss sex, sexuality, and relationships. The youth peer researchers then became advocates who initiated a number of activities to teach themselves and their peers about healthy relationships.


In the last two years, the Bulgarian government has made limited progress in its attempt to implement the Istanbul Convention and its National Strategy for Children 2019-2030. This strategy was developed to improve the support provided to children and families, especially to vulnerable children and women who suffer the effects of domestic violence. However, some conservatives lobbied against the Convention’s implementation based on their interpretation of the concept of ‘gender’ and that Bulgarian NGOs were trying to implement early sexuality education and to promote homosexuality in schools. The Convention’s implementation was thus postponed due to lack of consensus and political power. As a result of such a sensitive situation, new challenges have arisen. It has become more difficult to lobby about sexuality education programs in front of the relevant governmental structures and school representatives.

In response to these challenges, the ‘Adolescents’ Perceptions on Healthy Relationships’ (APHR) project was initiated to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation of adolescents by improving the safety and security of the spaces in which they move and live. Funded by the Oak Foundation, the project focuses on understanding how adolescents in Bulgaria and Tanzania view healthy relationships based on the idea that healthy relationships can prevent sexual abuse and exploitation. APHR utilized participatory processes by training adolescents as peer researchers and advocates. Through those processes, they also developed and disseminated an adolescent-centered Healthy Relationships model for policy-relevant research and advocacy. ISS, in cooperation with partners International Children’s Development Initiatives (ICDI) and Animus Association, trained adolescents in research techniques and solicited their input in developing the research design.

The 40 Bulgarian Youth Peer Researchers (YPRs) aged 14-18 who conducted the research between January 2017 and March 2019 examined various aspects of relationships in different settings, such as in the family, peers/friends, and schools. Through a survey, qualitative interviews, and focus group discussions on topics such as violence, sexuality, and online behaviour, they consulted with 1,200 adolescents aged 11-18, unpacking concepts that adolescents reported as important ingredients for healthy relations—concepts such as trust, respect, equality, and the balancing of dominance. The research definitely reveals a great deal about the world in which young people in Bulgaria navigate and how this affects their relationships. The research showed, for example, that homosexuality, a controversial topic in Bulgaria over the past few years, remains a challenge for youths: only 47% felt comfortable sharing their sexual status with their parents. In addition, 58% of YPRs responded that they think that violence always, often, or sometimes occurs in romantic relationships between teenagers—mostly psychological violence.

A gap in education, a lack of space

“Actually, I’ve read a lot of articles about sex, I took part in a course [not related to the school] dedicated to sexual education. I do not learn anything in my school. I learned a lot from the girls from this group.” Alexander YPR, 17

In Bulgaria, many schools offer no sexual education at all. Teachers are unwilling to talk about sex and when they do, the curriculum tends to focus on ‘biological’ and negative aspects and risks of sexuality, such as early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. YPRs pointed out that although these findings did not surprise them, they found them very problematic. They and their peers now depend on each other and on the Internet to get information on sex and sexuality. The YPRs also commented that the school does not provide any space for learning or exchange when it comes to these topics. Yet they assert that understanding the role of sex is essential to a healthy relationship, as it is to be open and informative about it. Adolescents therefore need safe spaces and opportunities to discuss it. This, they argue, will greatly contribute to establishing and maintaining healthy (intimate) relationships throughout their lifetimes.

Youths driving action to transform sex education

Following these discussions, youth peer researchers have felt increasingly empowered to take action. First of all, the YPRs have taught themselves what there is to know about sexual education. Through literacy and online research, listening to experts and talking to their peers, they have come to understand what information young people need to have when it comes to sex and sexuality. They have not only informed themselves, but have also become peer educators, helping their classmates to become better informed and feel comfortable when talking about this subject.

Moreover, the YPRs can now confidently indicate what is needed to improve sexual education and information for young people. And they haven’t stopped there: To really make changes, they have devised a policy brief with recommendations for schools to improve sexual education. This policy brief now forms the basis of an advocacy campaign, which will include a website, peer-to-peer sexual education classes, a social media campaign, and the creation of events and spaces where young people can discuss matters of sexuality freely and safely.

Recommendations as set out in the APHR policy brief

  • Comprehensive sexuality education should become part of the standard high school curriculum in Bulgaria—not as an afterthought, or in a minimalistic manner, leaving it up to teachers if and how they want to address it, but as a standardized, high quality ‘course’ that deserves the same respect and attention as other subjects.
  • Sexuality and relationships should be discussed in a broader sense in schools. Sex education classes should continue to address the biological aspects of sex (including STDs and preventing unwanted pregnancy). However, the conversation about sexuality and relationships should be expanded and should also include topics like love and romance, sexual pleasure, online pornography, healthy relationships, communication, homosexuality, emotions, dominance and equality, and (preventing) sexual abuse.
  • Young people should be involved in the design and development of the above-mentioned sexual education programmes.Schools should create more space for meaningful child and youth participation, not only to talk about sexuality and relationships, but about other issues that may concern them. Adolescents expressed a desire to discuss and exchange with their peers and with teachers. They want to be heard and to be taken seriously.

The APHR project results reveal the potential of participatory peer research itself for effecting positive change and promoting healthy relationships from an adolescent-centered perspective. The adult researchers in the project are therefore also advocating their Healthy Relationships Model for working with children and youth in research and development practice.

About the authors:

Screenshot_20200202-162113Rutger van Oudenhoven is Senior Programme Manager at International Children’s Development Initiatives in Leiden, Netherlands. He is adviser to the APHR Bulgaria team.

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children & Youth Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and leader of the APHR project.Headshot 02 17

Screenshot_20200202-204000__01Kristina Nenova is an International Projects and Programs expert at Animus Association in Sofia, Bulgaria. She is the lead local researcher for the APHR Bulgaria team.