How to handle informal complaints about gender-based violence? 

SUPPORTER partners are developing comprehensive Gender Equality Plans (GEPs), explicitly tackling gender-based violence and sexual harassment. While institutional policies and GEPs can effectively outline procedures for addressing formal complaints, a side challenge remains in effectively handling informal complaints.  

This blog highlights strategies to address informal complaints about gender-based violence shared during a recent webinar organised by the UniSAFE project building upon the work of Dr Anna Bull, an expert on sexual harassment in higher education. UniSAFE is an EU-funded project aiming at making universities and research organisations safe from gender-based violence. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Shared responsibility: Higher education institutions must share the burden of risk and responsibility, actively reporting incidents to foster a culture of accountabili


  • Proactive approach: Embrace a proactive approach in responding to concerns, to prevent any tolerance regarding gender-based violence. Institutions should conduct forward proactive investigations when dealing with multiple informal complaints to prevent their recurrence. 


  • Use anonymous reports to understand what is going on in your institution: Encourage occasional anonymous reporting to gather high-level data and ensure survivors receive the necessary support. Anonymous reports can provide insights into potential problems and steps that should be taken to resolve them. 


  • Do not disregard rumors or whispers: they may be initial indicators of issues. Institutions should gather evidence and be open to disclosures from the affected person's family or friends. 


  • Expertise matters: Engage professionals with the right expertise to handle the complexities of gender-based violence cases. This ensures fair investigations, sensitive support for survivors, and the development of comprehensive prevention and response strategies. 


  • Avoid direct confrontation with the perpetrator: The person affected should never be asked to approach the perpetrator directly or undergo mediation, minimizsing safety risks for the reporting party. 


  • Careful documentation: Informal complaints require careful implementation and documentation to protect all involved parties and ensure effective risk management. 


  • Precautionary measures: Implement precautionary measures, such as no-contact agreements or behavioural intentions, to ensure appropriate conduct moving forward. 


  • Establish risk threshold: Institutions should determine a risk threshold for appointing a formal investigator. For example, a single report of sexual misconduct should trigger an investigation. 


  • Continuous communication: Maintain communication with disclosure parties throughout the process to assess their safety, build trust, and encourage reporting. Students and staff disclose information as a way of testing the institution's safety and responsiveness. 


  • Awareness workshops: Conduct awareness-raising workshops during students' induction week and review their understanding of the topic periodically. While these workshops require a lot of resources, they are crucial for communicating information and addressing issues. 


  • Cultural change: Undertake cultural change initiatives across departments/teams, encouraging discussions and agreement on acceptable behaviours. 

By adopting these proactive measures, higher education institutions can create a safer and more supportive environment, effectively addressing and preventing gender-based violence and sexual harassment.