USI’s 2018 Congress saw hundreds of policy motions voted on this week, on everything from mental health to union policies to repealing the 8th amendment. The most notable debates over the four days included equality for transgender and non-binary students, the Palestinian conflict and discussions of the upcoming referendum. Lines of students gathered at opposite sides to voice their opinions on the various motions of the week and fiery debates often ensued. But when the topic of abusive relationships and sexual violence came up, the most talked about debate of Congress this year, no one stood on the opposition side of the room.
What seemed like an endless line of students quickly formed at the left side of the room to urge the passing of the motion. The delegates were a mix of female, male and non-binary students. They all attended different universities and grew up in different places. They were of differing ethnic backgrounds and religions. But they all had one thing in common- they had been directly affected by the matters in the motion proposed and felt it was time to have their voices heard.
Hearts broke around the room as delegates relayed their very personal stories- it was the first time many of the speakers told their stories at all and their wishes of remaining anonymous have been respected.
Some delegates spent years in abusive relationships not knowing how to get out. Others spoke of horrific acts of violence that they had to devastatingly experience- such as being raped in a nightclub bathroom or being sexually abused by someone they trusted. A delegate from DIT announced some shocking statistics to the room; 30% of people in Ireland were affected by sexual violence and harassment, yet only 8% of cases are reported to the Gardaí.
A UCC delegate announced that they carried out a survey in their university last year that showed 1 in 7 of their students had been affected by sexual violence.
Delegates bravely stood up to tell the room that they were one of them, but that they were not just a statistic. One delegate later stated in an incredibly moving speech, “I am not a number. I am human, and I will not be silenced”.
CIT SU’s Vice President for Welfare, Stephanie Fogarty, told the room “We need to make damn sure that things start to change” when she urged the passing of the motion.
NUI Galway delegate Cameron Keighron urged the need to teach about consent when students first enter university and his fellow delegate Clare Austick, NUI Galway’s SU Equality Officer, told the floor that she wanted to tell anyone affected by the issues, “You are strong, you are valuable, and you matter.”
Many delegates spoke of the recent trial of Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. They said that as members of their college Student Unions’ they wanted to urge any student affected to come to them because “you will be believed.”
The recent trending of #SueMePaddy was a commonly used quote in speeches.
While each moment of the debate was notable, some speeches were so enlightening that it brought voters to tears, with many having to leave the room. Such moments included when a male student from a rural background spoke about his suffering from domestic violence, or when multiple transgender students stood up to tell the room about how their identities were used against them to further their pain. Another male delegate reminded the room “this happens to guys too and we need to stop forgetting that”.
Voters greeted each speech with thundering applause and standing ovations. The frustration was more than palpable around the room by the time the USI Vice President for Welfare, Niamh Murtagh, closed the discussion with the following statement:
“We are strong. We are united. And we do not accept rape cultures anymore.”
Over 200 valiant students stood up in solidarity to vote in favor of the motion.
Next year the USI Vice Presidents’ for Welfare and Equality will develop a partnership with the National Women’s Council of Ireland in their project work to end sexual violence and harassment at third level institutions in Ireland following the vote.
Featured image: USI / Twitter
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