About 300 Stellenbosch University (SU) students gathered on the Rooiplein on Tuesday 29 March 2016 for a lunchtime conversation on rape culture. A memorandum with demands was also handed over to Management representatives.
At the gathering, arranged by student leaders and the SRC, students voiced their concerns, complaints and experiences. Some of the issues raised included certain University activities and residence traditions objectifying women, the safety of students on and off campus, how support structures function and how rape culture is addressed at the institution. Speakers defined rape culture as women feeling objectified, unsafe and victimised.
"Yes, we do have a problem as rape culture is a problem in South Africa and not just confined to SU. And you are right, we need to do more as an institution," Dr Birgit Schreiber, Senior Director of Student Affairs, said at the gathering. She also heads up a newly created task team set up to investigate issues around gender violence at SU.
"We are proud of our students for raising these issues. We need male and female students to make a difference – in their own environments and in formal University structures."
Dr Schreiber received the student memorandum together with Ms Nicolette van den Eijkel, Chief Director: Facilities Management (which includes Campus Security), who also serves on the task team.
Rape culture, first named and described internationally in the 1970s, is defined as various acts in which sexual aggression or sexual victimization is normalised due to societal attitudes on gender and sexuality. Behaviours commonly associated with rape culture include sexual objectification, victim blaming, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these.
Earlier, SU said the institution has long taken a firm stance against all forms of sexual misconduct and violence against women. At the beginning of March, the Rector's Management Team (RMT) appointed a task team to urgently look into rape culture at the institution and make the necessary recommendations.
Rape is a serious criminal offence that falls under the jurisdiction of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the judiciary, and the University said it provides its full cooperation in all criminal investigations. At the Rooiplein gathering, students were encouraged to report rape and gender violence to the authorities and to the University.
SU said that sexual misconduct is dealt with in terms of the University's Student Disciplinary Code and its Sexual Harassment Policy (for staff members). SU's Division of Legal Services investigates allegations, and University's Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee hears and acts on reported cases of sexual misconduct.
However, rape culture goes beyond legal and disciplinary aspects. It encompasses complaints about a general culture of disrespect and harassment of women students, and that this is regarded as normal.
The University said that existing counter-measures at SU include on-going activities on its various campuses to create awareness about gender issues and sexual harassment. Consciousness-raising sessions and sensitivity training for staff members and students take place both in and outside of residences. But the institution conceded that more systematic interventions might be required to challenge entrenched practices. Coming up with recommendations in this regard falls within the ambit of the task team's scope of work.
SU said that it provides counselling and support to students who seek assistance following incidents of sexual misconduct. The Campus Health Service, Campus Security, Centre for Student Counselling and Development (CSCD) and its new Equality Unit assists in this regard. A 24-hour Crisis Service is also available to students in urgent need of assistance on telephone number 082 557 0880.
One of the demand in the memorandum is that contracted security officials at SU who are accused of harassing female students be removed. Approached for comment, the University said that all external service providers at SU are expected to subscribe and enforce the values of equality, respect and human dignity, and to display no tolerance for any form of discrimination. The actions of staff from external companies, which include the private security staff, are monitored and addressed where necessary. In this regard, staff and students can lay complaints, anonymous should they so prefer, at the University's Equality Unit at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Management said the student memorandum would be studied and responded to as soon as possible.