South Africa suffers from a serious pandemic. The violence against women and children in this country is at its highest ever. Women are becoming or are already endangered at the hand of men. After 16 days of activism against women and children abuse, the government reported that in the months leading to and during December, South Africa recorded more than twelve thousand cases of gender-based violence (GBV). South African universities and colleges are not immune to this pandemic.
Violence against students from other students and others is a problem that universities are faced with. One of the effects of the lack of significant research on GBV is that this social ill remains poorly understood, both in terms of what it entails as well as its prevalence. In an attempt to define GBV, Professor Nuraan David, a professor of philosophy of education at Stellenbosch University, states that GBV involves physical, sexual, emotional, domestic, economic, and intimate partner violence.
To date, the dominant narrative and understanding of GBV seems to be limited to male-on-female violence. However, there are harmful implications with this view. The first implication is that it reduces women to victimhood and powerlessness, and makes it seems as though women can never perpetrate gender-based violence. The second implication is that the construct of gender is not universal and diverse, and not necessarily limited to the historical context of just men and women, but includes different gender and sexual identities. There are people who are non-gender conforming, and those who are in the trans community, so it can be damaging to assume violence is exclusively cisgendered male-on-female violence.
“Violence against students from other students and others is a problem that universities are faced with.“
With the rise in statistics of GBV, higher learning institutions have had to create policies that will try to eradicate this pandemic. However, these policies are not as effective as one would hope, as most of them are limited to sexual harassment and male-on-female violence. The policy framework addressing gender-based violence in post-school education is founded on the argument that GBV is a male-on-female violence. This view is undoubtedly biased and ineffective; we must acknowledge that physical and sexual violence is not only directed at women and girls. Queer individuals, in particular, also experience such threats and violations. They are discriminated against on the basis of being non-conforming, as they do not practice heterosexuality, which is seen by many as the “norm”. In her paper, Prof. David shows an analysis of policies in South African universities. This analysis shows how a lot of emphasis is placed on sexual harassment, and, therefore, how policies are overlooking other violence that may be perpetrated. According to the Director of the Transformation Office, Nontsikelelo Loteni, UP’s policies are not only limited to male-on-female violence, and “any form of violence against anyone irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc is not acceptable”.
GBV’s causal factors are complex and intricate, but they are usually founded in deep social and patriarchal constructs. These social and patriarchal beliefs are as widespread in society as they are in university and college spaces. Patriarchy is expressed in a manner that holds maleness as central, as opposed to femaleness, which is deemed as secondary or other. This view leads to the belief by men thinking they have power over the female body, and enables rape culture by positioning women and queer people as inferior or secondary.
Karabo Sono, Studios@Burnett’s first female student committee chairperson and a supply chain management student at UP, explained how patriarchy is one of the factors influencing GBV in university spaces. She explains that inasmuch as it is a learnt social construct, it can be unlearnt. In dealing with a case lodged by a male student, Sono emphasised the importance of noting that “male students can [also] be sexually harassed”, despite the patriarchal perception that men are always the perpetrators.
“UP’s policies are not only limited to male-on-female violence, and “any form of violence against anyone irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc is not acceptable”.“
Sono, through her committee, offers first years workshops that teach on GBV. She explains that “as a person who has been there, I know firsthand what it’s like to be violated, that is why my main objective as a chairperson is to ensure urgency when a student lodges a case with us; I rise fast to the matter and get the student into the right channels with both the management of the building and the university so that justice prevails’’.
University policies are usually policies on unfair discrimination and harassment, disciplinary codes for students, and disciplinary codes for staff members. Prof. David stipulated that none of these policies provided a comprehensive definition of gender-based violence. Because of this exclusion, in 2019 UP adopted the Anti-Discrimination Policy, so as to ensure equal protection of all people, and give a clear description of what the different violations are. Similarly, the sexual offences, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual violence policies for a number of universities neither unpack what is understood by gender-based violence, nor mention queer issues. With regard to some policies not mentioning the protection of the queer community, Loteni reported that the university’s “Anti-Discrimination Policy protects even queer individuals because they are also vulnerable to violation”, and encourages victims to “report any case of violence, discrimination or harassment using all the available avenues that can be accessible to the person at the time”. She added that counselling support is offered, and an “investigation is instituted immediately”.
The number of cases reported by victimised students are very small compared to the actual violence that takes place, and Loteni said that in the 2020 academic year, 17 cases of violation were lodged with the Transformation Office. During the 2019 academic year, some high profile cases of gender-based violence reportedly taking place in and around institutions in South Africa became national headline news and spurred the #AmINext protests. However, only a tiny fraction of such cases made it into local and/or national news. Insufficient information presents a challenge, as it becomes difficult to provide a full picture of the scale of the scourge of GBV. This lack of information is a result of cases being underreported for a variety of reasons. The majority of incidents, particularly those in which queer people are victims, either go unreported or, when reported, they are not followed up and investigated fully.
“Insufficient information presents a challenge, as it becomes difficult to provide a full picture of the scale of the scourge of GBV.“
Captain Colette Weilbach of the Brooklyn SAPS explains that when a student files a sexual assault case with the police, they are first interviewed by a police official at a community service centre so as to get the basis of the incident. Following this, a written statement is obtained. Captain Weilbach noted that “statements with regards to gender-based violence and other sensitive cases are taken in private in a Victim Friendly Room (VFR)”. In some cases, “a police official may attend the crime scene […] and where possible more statements will be obtained”. If their identity is known, the suspect is arrested immediately. For a case follow-up, once a crime has been reported, a registration is made in the Crime Administration System (CAS). The CAS number is forwarded to the victim through an SMS. For victim support services, victims can contact Monami Trauma Troops on 073 653 4497. Any information relating to crime can be given to the police by contacting 08600 10111.
In an attempt to deal with GBV in higher learning institutions, UP has policies and measures in place that serve to address this problem. The university’s Transformation Office looks into protecting victimised students, and preventing any further victimisation of students. The office is set to launch an online case reporting system through the University of Pretoria mobile app. The aim of this initiative is to strengthen mechanisms and processes that are in place to address discrimination, harassment, and all-round violation of students and staff of the institution. The utilisation of this system will remove many barriers of access for campuses with regard to the reporting of cases. Loteni stated that “this will eliminate the travel challenges faced by those who currently need to report cases face to face. Once the case has been lodged in the system, it will be routed to the investigator, who will then contact the complainant and go to their location to investigate the matter”.
Another objective of this reporting tool is to create an integrated management system that will connect complainants to all the relevant stakeholders in GBV or discrimination case management. The reporting tool will also connect students and employees of UP to the Counselling Unit and Employee Wellness Unit, to offer them emotional and psychological support. “The system will be able to provide a complainant with a case reference number, an acknowledgement of receipt of the complaint, a progress update as the case is referred to the various stakeholders for processing. It should be noted that this system does not replace face-to-face case reporting or email case logging, or the human resources grievances reporting system. Employees should continue to utilise these, as they will be integrated into the new process.The university is devoted to creating an environment that will ensure justice, safety and protection for all stuff and students”, said Loteni.
This system is being implemented alongside existing policies that the university has put in place to try to combat GBV. In 2019, the university approved the Anti-Discrimination Policy (ADP). The purpose of this policy is to promote the achievement of procedural and substantive equality, and prohibit any form of discrimination, hate speech, harassment, and violence. The anti-discrimination operational manual provides a detailed process that one can follow in lodging a complaint as well as how the case will be managed.
Students who experience violence of any nature should contact the Transformation Office for help. Sarah Matseke, who is the Acting Manager of the office, can be contacted at email@example.com, and Nontsikelelo Loteni, who is the Director of the office, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration: Cassandra EardleyIllustration: Eardley