Campuses of higher education are increasingly becoming violent places where students and staff are sexually assaulted.
The lack of clear policies makes it difficult for most universities and public colleges to deal with the scourge.
As a result institutions at times rely on the criminal justice system to deal with such cases.
Trends developed from academic studies and other sources by the Higher Education and Training HIV/Aids Programme, a think-tank of the higher education and training department, dating from the 1970s to 2016, recorded growing sexual and gender-based violence on campuses, with the emergence of sex for marks as another form between 2010 and 2016.
Between 1970 and 1980, the programme study reveals that gender-based violence was rife.
From 1991 onwards studies recorded more sexual harassment on campuses; more than half of the student population at 17 universities felt unsafe and 12% did not walk alone after dark. But there was activism.
Between 2000 and 2009 activism declined because of university mergers and the emergence of public colleges, which resulted in diminished attention to gender-based violence by staff. At the time, helping victims of gender-based violence was not seen as a legitimate use of time, the programme study reveals.
However, a study conducted by Wits University this year shares critical data of gender-based violence on campus. Although researchers warned that the Wits study should not be taken as a general picture of the situation in the country, the study shows a dire picture.
As a result, the programme is set to gazette a policy that would assist universities and colleges to deal with cases of gender-based violence on campuses.
Its work focuses on 26 universities and 50 public colleges, totalling 420 campuses.
As part of its contribution towards the development of the policy framework, Universities SA (USAf) – an organisation represented by 26 university vice-chancellors – found that at least five universities had gender-based violence policies in place.
The SA College Principals’ Organisation (Sacpo), which represents 50 colleges, revealed that four colleges reported having a policy specifically to address sexual violence, with a further 12 relying on the general student code of conduct to guide their handling of these matters.
In addition, Sacpo said three colleges referred these cases to the police; four referred cases to student support services, NGOs or social workers.
According to the Wits study, 26.9% of students, 17% of academic staff and 13.2% of the administrative staff had experienced at least one incident of gender-based violence, ranging from being subjected to unwanted displays of sexual material to being forced to have sex.
The study indicated that:
Women were more likely to experience gender-based violence (74.2% of students, 90.5% of administrative staff and 84.3% of academic staff);
Men were more likely to be the perpetrators, responsible for 86.2% of the incidents experienced by students, 88.8% of the administrative staffs’ experiences and 78.3% of incidents experienced by academics;
Academic and administrative staff experienced far fewer violent incidents than students (22 versus 206). Half of these incidents were intimate partner violence and the other half fell into one of three rape scenarios; and
Stigma was a challenge because when a perpetrator was drawn from the Wits community, the perpetrator was typically harmed by other students and the staff by their colleagues.
Programme researchers revealed that the effect of gender-based violence could lead to the victim having physical injuries, pregnancies, miscarriages, complications, emotional problems relating to suicidal thoughts, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, low graduate competencies and lack of concentration resulting to many dropouts.
Programme researchers also found that a high proportion – about 76.5% of 194 female students, who were sex workers from different universities and colleges, and were doing so to pay for their education and clothing.
Researchers found there were students involved in transactional sex and both these activities exposed students to high levels of gender-based violence.
According to the programme, research showed the prevalence of sex for marks was associated with lecturers threatening to withhold students’ notes or denying them the opportunity to write tests and exams.
Students who complained about a lecturer to another staff member were warned to stay out of trouble and avoid the lecturer’s office instead of being told about complaints procedures.
The study indicated that, when a student had been raped or assaulted by another student, his or her attempts to obtain justice and to feel safe were frustrated by campus security. Instead of detaining suspects or refusing them access to campus or residences, security guards were informing suspects about the allegations against them and allowing them to evade the consequences.
Faced by this lack of response, students would deregister from courses, leave campus, or fail and would not be able to obtain a study loan again.
Programme chief executive officer Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia said a study conducted between 2008 and 2009 showed a similar pattern of behaviour of students having multiple sexual partners, engaging in transactional sex and intergenerational sex.
“There’s no black, coloured or white. The pattern is similar at previously advantaged and disadvantaged universities. The epidemic is very high because of the freedom students have. Young people need to be careful,” said Ahluwalia.
But, he said, awareness interventions made by the think-tank programme had helped to curb the scourge.
Universities SA’s special projects technical adviser Managa Pillay said universities referred cases to the criminal justice system.
“The policy framework must address the gaps in the system and aims to strengthen university responses, making them victim-friendly, decisive and comprehensive, with high levels of accountability placed on the institution.
“USAf has played an integral role in the development of the framework, both as a lobbying agency and as a key member on the technical task team,” said Pillay.
Research showed that one of the challenges of gender-based violence was the lack of documented evidence and underreporting, Pillay said. The factors that contributed to underreporting included lack of trust in university structures and victims being dissuaded from pursuing formal complaints.
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