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Survivor-advocate Sarah Williams to question NSW parliament on sexual assault response at music festivals

A sexual assault survivor-advocate is urging the New South Wales government to mandate safe spaces at music festivals.

Safe spaces are on-site, secure areas for people impacted by sexual assault or harassment that include trauma-informed counselling, reporting facilities and medical services.

Sarah Williams founded not-for-profit What Were You Wearing (WWYW) following her experience with drink spiking in 2021.

During her work on the issue, Ms Williams said she heard thousands of stories of abuse at festivals.

“It is a massive issue, and it needs to be spotlighted as just as big an issue as alcohol and drug prevention at festivals,” she said.

In June, Ms Williams presented a petition with more than 20,000 signatures to state parliament, forcing a debate on a call for mandatory drink spiking and sexual assault training for security and bar staff in all licensed venues in NSW.

The debate secured support for an amendment to the state’s Responsible Service of Alcohol guidelines.

Sarah Williams studies Communications and Law while running her not-for-profit What Were You Wearing.(Supplied: Sarah Williams)

Now she wants to turn to focus on improving safety at music festivals.

“They aren’t trained properly to deal with reports, or the right resources aren’t being offered,” Ms Williams said.

Young man waving from underneath a gazebo, orange sign says 'By survivors, for suvivors'

 The WWYW Safe Space at the Pitch Music & Arts Festival 2022 in Victoria.(Supplied: Sarah Williams)

“If a festival is going to get a harm minimisation service that looks after a whole range of things like drugs and alcohol and first aid, sexual violence is always swept under the rug and forgotten about.”

WWYW has attended more than 30 festivals across Australia since creating its own Safe Space program, offering the service free-of-charge through state government support.

Ms Williams said her organisation had received “quite scary” anecdotes from festival-goers and believed the support services currently available were “too busy” to properly address sexual violence.

With the festival season ramping up, she urged the state government to add a section to the NSW Festivals Act of 2019 mandating sexual assault services.

“The potential amendment we have is ‘an area for external sexual assault service on site for reporting and harm minimisation’,” she said.

Festival-goers support young advocate 

Tan skinned young woman wears sunglasses and yellow singlet, smiling.

Alex Edwards, 22, was one of thousands of people at this year’s Yours and Owls Festival.(ABC Illawarra: Brooke Chandler)

More than 25,000 young people attended the Yours and Owl music festival at the University of Wollongong this month.

Young male with tied back brunette hair squinting towards camera.

Joshua Huf is an electrical engineering student at the University of Wollongong.(ABC Illawarra: Brooke Chandler)

Attendee Alex Edwards said while she was happy to see drug and alcohol harm minimisation facilities at the festival, she would prefer a dedicated sexual violence support service.

“Having the attention straight away — that’s never really the case — and having to sit on it can often create more issues,” she said.

Joshua Huf said he wished services like the WWYW Safe Space were available for his friends after they had shared their experience of sexual assault at festivals.

“It happens a lot, mostly at music festivals,” he said.

“Having [the service], even next to the medical tents, would be fantastic and beneficial for all people who get sexually assaulted.”

Already addressing issue: festival organisers

Ms Williams, who was this week nominated as a finalist for the 2023 Australian Human Rights Awards, said she had to almost “beg” festival organisers for permission to attend their events.

“People don’t like having a sexual assault service present at many things because then they think it tells people sexual assault happens there,” she said.

“But we’ve noticed the opposite — it makes people feel safer.”

In a statement, Yours and Owls said the disclosures and incidents relating to sexual assault, and mental health episodes were managed by its main harm minimisation partner Dancewize.

“Their legal status means they do not have to report sexual assaults to the police unless the client wants to make a formal report, however they have direct lines with both medical and police should an issue arise that requires escalation,” a spokesperson said.

Crowds of people spread across grass, festival stage in the background.

This year was the first time the University of Wollongong hosted the Yours and Owls Festival.(ABC Illawarra: Matt Gazy)

‘Peer-based harm reduction’

Earlier this month, NSW Health renewed its safety guidelines for organisers in consultation with the Australian Festivals Association (AFA), and included a commitment to harm minimisation.


The AFA said it encouraged all members to engage a “peer-based harm reduction service” at events.

Minister for Music and Nighttime Economy John Graham was approached for comment.

“Under the guidelines, festival organisers should take reasonable steps to prevent sexual assault from occurring and should have a formal process in place for managing reports of sexual assault,” a spokesperson from the Department of Enterprise, Investment, and Trade said.

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https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-10-23/music-festival-safe-spaces-after-sexual-violence/102996332 Survivor-advocate Sarah Williams to question NSW parliament on sexual assault response at music festivals

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