UofA Women’s Collective: The Story So Far….

“Another OnDit article…” you think. Yes, you’re right. Another OnDit article about the UofA Women’s Collective and their long, uphill battle for AUU club affiliation. Why is this still a debate? Just to recap:

2019 timeline
2020 timeline

The Beginning: Equal Representation of Views

The UofA Women’s Collective formed to fill a gap in student representation and club activities to exclusively support feminism, debate and advocacy surrounding women’s rights. The collective seeks to act as a point of support and socialisation for women on campus, which is unique to any other club or student body on campus. Upon the discovery of an active pro-life club on campus, Stella Salvemini posted online to seek out other students interested in forming a Women’s Collective. Many students expressed their interest, and so it began: a small but passionate group of students decided to take initiative and form the collective for anyone on campus to join. As of writing this, the club now has over 200 members.

Although there was so much support for its formation, the online discussions on Overheard presented an unsettling amount of negative discourse towards feminism and a lack of respect towards women. Since then, a severe lack of professionalism and respectful communication by the AUU board has led to a very disappointing pattern of applications, appeals, meetings and just sheer frustration. Why is this the case?

Union Affiliation, Misconduct and Their Changing Excuses

The Women’s Collective, also referred to as “WoCo”, sought affiliation with the AUU on September 9th 2019 and received a rejection notice on the 27th, citing “Celebrating women is not unique or necessary with no need for this club”. The AUU clubs committee at the time had used an illegal vote, cast by Ramses Saaid, as well as purposely rescheduling the meeting at the last minute on a day that fellow committee member Mary Kelly could not attend.

Taken from the minutes of Clubs Committee meeting 19/9/19

The Union had Oscar Ong as president at the time, who was also a member of the Clubs Committee which had rejected the club’s initial expression of interest. A reapplication/appeal was heard on October 15th, and garnered no response until the 6th of November, but only after much chasing on WoCo’s part. It was eventually communicated that the decision was going to the AUU board meeting on October 25th. The Women’s Collective received no formal response from that meeting.

This rejection was featured in the Australian Advertiser on March 6th 2020, shedding light on the club’s struggle to be recognised and supported by the AUU and invited other news platforms, such as the ABC, to make contact.

Why does the board feel so threatened by the notion of giving a group of women a platform to use their voice? We won’t use it to cast curses and hexes. We are simply seeking the opportunity to provide a safe space and instil positive changes to improve the university experience for everyone.

Women currently make up 49% of the student population, not to mention female staff, prospective students, and post-graduate women. Could you imagine if the AUU Board supported, encouraged and created more opportunities for women to have a voice on campus, on their own university experience? I don’t know about you, but I think that’s called equality.

SRC Affiliation and Stifling WoCo Autonomy

Despite past rejections, WoCo did not let the negative beliefs of a few individuals halt their work in 2020. The outcry for a Women’s Collective on campus was evident by the fast-growing number of members the Collective reached, its progressive sense of community, and the lack of equal representation in the already existing clubs (ie. there exists a pro-life club, but the pro-choice club is yet to be affiliated).

WoCo had a positive relationship with the Student Representative Council (SRC) and was invited to assist with stalls during O’Week, providing us with a shared platform where the AUU had failed.

On March 16th, the SRC affiliated the UofA Women’s Collective. However, this was not a walk in the park. In order to be affiliated with a body that isn’t even the standardised affiliation body for clubs, the Collective had to give up a large part of their autonomy and denounce their at-time, club president, Stella Salvemini, and allow the SRC to forcefully give the title of president to vocal supporter, Rebecca Etienne, who currently presides as the SRC Women’s Officer.

Understandably, this placed much strain on the collective, even more so when events led to Oscar Ong (Progress) being appointed as SRC President (April 21st, 2020) supported by Young Liberals and Progress.

When WoCo applied to be affiliated with the AUU, Oscar Ong and Progress rejected the Women’s collective. Below is a quote from the Clubs Committee minutes, used to justify the rejection during Oscar’s AUU presidency and time on the committee:

“Celebrating women is not unique or necessary with no need for this club”

Who would try and undermine the work of countless women throughout the course of history who have stood up to oppression, who have spoken out against inequality, and who have survived abuse? To attempt to diminish the impact of the innumerable women who have gritted their teeth and nodded through misdiagnosis due to a lack of understanding of female health, who have wiped away their tears, straightened their skirts and worked effortlessly to bring about positive change for their fellow sisters and brothers? The sad thing is that even today a very high majority of women will experience inequality or oppression, for it is still so very deeply ingrained within our society (Need an example? Women are 47% more likely to be injured in a car crash because safety features are designed for men). How dare anyone say that celebrating women and their battles is not necessary or that their stories are not unique?

The quote alone is disappointing enough, but within this, our appeals had been overturned consistently with lack of reasoning. It has been raised now that collective affiliation was merely a governance issue but there is no record of that in the Clubs Committee minutes that we’ve seen, or in any communication with the Collective. Oscar Ong refused to meet with the Women’s Collective and only attempted to explain this to SRC Women’s Officer Rebecca Etienne. Upon her asking if we were able to continue this conversation with other members of the collective’s executive, Ong again refused this request.

To summarise this unfathomably disappointing chain of events, this was simply blocking a women’s group’s right to exist on campus. The AUU Board and the SRC President do not listen to, or represent women. Ong’s position as SRC President is untenable if he continues to ignore what women on campus are asking for. Who is holding them accountable for their actions?

WoCo goals and challenges at the moment

On the 16th of May, WoCo President Stella Salvemini sent an email to SRC President Oscar Ong asking for disaffiliation to the SRC. In this letter, Salvemini mentioned to the SRC President in her email, “although we appreciated the opportunity of this affiliation, we would like to be treated as any other club and not as a political faction” and “would like the same opportunities to participate in student activities and aim to include students who wish to participate in our club from a range of political standings”. Ong sent a lengthy email response to WoCo President Stella, drawing from every constitutional clause he could find in a feeble attempt to explain why our claims did not fit his interpretation; in his own words, he had “no reason to consider (the) request [for disaffiliation].”

Email correspondence between WoCo president Stella Salvemini and SRC President Oscar Ong

So, what now?

Despite the challenges presented to us, the Women’s Collective have worked hard to create a stronger campus culture. We have actively tried to increase online engagement in such a difficult time by hosting Discord/Zoom chats, collaborating with other clubs on campus, screening movie nights with the AUU and working behind the scenes to create welfare packs for women who may be struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to funding, accessibility and manpower, this has not been easy to achieve but we are motivated, and luckily, that is often the first step!

As we are living in unprecedented times, our current goal is simply to support all women in whatever way possible. Women who are working, women who are unemployed, women who are in caregiver roles, women who lack a strong support network, women who are unwell, and last but not least, women who are living in a toxic and dangerous environment. Fact: The national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service 1800 RESPECT said that between March and April, the use of its online chat tool had increased by 38%. 38 percent! How upsetting is this? It’s time to work together to support those in need.

The UofA Women’s Collective are very proud to be a student-led initiative that advocates for women on campus and beyond. We never asked to be dragged into this mess, and the difficulties we continue to overcome highlight the need for a club like this at The University of Adelaide. We are a social club, a safe space for all women and allies alike to come together, share experiences and meet like-minded individuals who are passionate about women’s rights. We are a group of students who saw a gap in student representation, and felt that something needed to be done about it. We did not create this battle. The board who consistently rejects us did, but like so many women before us we will fight this brand of oppression. We will not give in. We will be on the right side of history. So, fight like a girl they say? Game on.

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