Gender-based violence (GBV) – a term used interchangeably with violence against women – is a widespread and critical issue in South Africa that requires effective and efficient action that goes beyond the campaigning and sloganeering.
Violence against women has been a problem for many years, with its prevalence in the Higher Education sector, foregrounded in recent years.
One would be aware of the student marches at Rhodes University as well as the anti-rape march by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University students last year, where the issue of rape culture was thrust to the fore, unearthing the extensiveness of the problem in tertiary institutions.
This has forced authorities in the sector to do some introspection into the manner in which such cases have previously been dealt with and put forward effective alternative solutions to adequately address the issue.
NMMU Director for Transformation Monitoring and Evaluation, Dr Ruby-Ann Levendal, said that at the core of the students’ issues seems to be the systemic challenges within institutions in dealing with reported cases – often deterring complainants from laying formal charges or, once laid, withdrawing them.
“At NMMU, a number of processes have since been set in motion to strengthen and improve its efficiencies in dealing with issues of gender-based violence,” she said.
These include the revision of the current Sexual Harassment policy – reviewing the reporting protocols and capacitating those who act as the first line of contact when cases are reported with the necessary skills to receive statements in an enabling environment.
There have been a number of workshops conducted in line with these interventions, the latest of which was held last week (17 May).
Key amendments to the policy include the establishment of an alternative formal disciplinary process for both staff and students, in which the hearing panel will comprise a legal professional or legal academic with expertise in human rights law and/or gender equality as well as an appropriate professional who works in the gender-based violence sector.
“This revision aims to ensure that the process is conducted with the necessary urgency and sensitivity required for this category of misconduct,” Dr Levendal said.
Policy revisions would also entail improvement in the provision of psychosocial support for both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.
“The principles of restorative justice and advocacy are also embedded in the revised policy to ensure that perpetrators take responsibility of their conduct. The aim here is to work towards preventing a recurrence of the incident and even having the perpetrators themselves renounce their actions and advocating against gender-based violence and/or sexual offences,” Dr Levendal said.
The University is also looking into the existing Staff and Student Disciplinary Codes, to emphasise the gravity of such transgressions by having a dedicated section that deals specifically with matters of sexual harassment and sexual offences.
At a national level, the Department of Higher Education and Training has set up a 15-member task team to develop a policy framework relating to sexual violence and gender based violence, aimed at assisting institutions in dealing decisively with, among other things, the concerning issue of what is widely known as “sex for marks”. This is a phenomenon where lecturers use sex with students as an exchange for better marks. The task team will be undertaking a sectoral policy review process and developing strategic programs for sexual violence and gender-based violence in the Post-school education sector.
NMMU remains committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all its staff and students and will work to speedily conclude the policy review process. This with the aim to reinforce and strengthen the mechanisms available to report and effectively address such transgressions.