Stellenbosch University
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The role of the university in dealing with gender-based violence on campus
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Sue Segar
Published: 15/10/2021

South African universities are part of a society where “incredibly high levels of violence" are perpetrated – much of it against women. The responsibility to address this lies not only with universities but with the whole of society.

A country or a university can have the best policies and laws to deal with gender-based violence (GBV), but this often does not translate into adequately serving the rights of both victims and survivors.

This is according to Bronwyn Pithey, an advocate with the Women's Legal Centre, who has been working closely on issues relating to violence against women for the past 25 years. The comments were made during a webinar and in a panel discussion on putting an end to GBV on the Tygerberg campus of Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).

The webinar, aimed at all students and staff, was titled 'Our campus. Our culture'.

Emeritus Professor Usuf Chikte, former head of the Department of Global Health in the FMHS, set the tone of the discussion by saying that "putting an end to GBV is our collective responsibility. Let's create a healthy, safe campus culture for all."

The webinar was started by listing South African women who have, in recent years, been victims of GBV.

Hennie Botha, provided some background on the task team, which was set up in July 2020 to address GBV on campus. He mentioned that in initially setting it up, it was hoped that it would facilitate a culture change that values, respects and protects each other on campus and beyond.

Universities face common obstacles in dealing with GBV on campus

Pithey, who has worked with various universities in dealing with GBV on campuses, stressed there was nothing unique about the efforts of Stellenbosch University in grappling with GBV.

She said there was indeed a deep understanding of the problem facing the campus as well as a commitment from the task team to make a difference, and that this should be acknowledged.

“Too often it's easy to criticise - because we are in pain and frustrated – the way a university or faculty does, or does not, respond, and a lot of that anger is expressed in a way that might not be constructive."

Pithey continued to say that despite SA's extremely good laws with regard to GBV, when one looks at the experiences of victims and survivors, within the criminal justice system in particular, one finds the attrition rate is extremely high – with women and children falling out of the system to the extent that we only have something like an eight percent conviction rate of reported matters to the police when it comes to cases involving sexual violence.

Policies alone will not solve the problem

"Many universities have fantastic reporting procedures and policies, but I have absolutely no doubt that unless you have the right people implementing those policies and procedures, victims and survivors may not feel supported, and may not stay in the process," said Pithey.

She added that it was absolutely essential there was information available to victims and survivors on how to report incidences of GBV. Even though things were in place, one has to remember that nobody looks at those policies, unless it affects them in some personal way.

She stressed that a policy that's neatly tucked away would not help anyone.

"Those who surround the person who is affected by such an incident, namely their friends, their family, their support mechanisms and people in the residences must be well versed in the policies and procedures that are required, when an incident of this nature occurs."

She mentioned that when we talk about access to justice, it's not only getting a perpetrator expelled, but it may be a whole lot of other things, such as making sure victims are fundamentally supported throughout the complaints process and that they are given assurance that they can continue with their studies.

A further concern students had communicated to her was a lack of transparency around investigation processes.

“Again it is the tension that exists in that the university has the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the students, but then they have to balance that with the rights of the alleged perpetrators."

Pithey also stressed the need for proper information to be given to the university community on the outcome of internal disciplinary proceedings.

“One thing happening at (some) universities is the naming of perpetrators. Universities have to try and balance their disciplinary process against a backdrop of a very angry student body who feels the university is not doing enough, and that they as the students have a right to tell everyone who the alleged perpetrators are."

“We need to look at why students are feeling frustrated. I think it is to a large extent because they feel the university is not responding in the way they want them to respond. Constant engagement with student bodies is extremely necessary."

Pithey stressed the need for a university to communicate openly and transparently with their student body, and to work as closely as possible with them, as silence leads to suspicion.

GBV on campuses needs to be seen in a wider societal context

Nina Burrowes, a UK-based psychologist, author, speaker, activist and founder of The Consent Collective, who was also a speaker at the event, provided a few valuable guidelines for campuses when dealing with GBV.

“It is vital to think about the wider context – to recognise that you have a problem with GBV on campus, but that every university and society in the world has a problem with GBV. If you just put it in a silo and talk about what is happening on campus, without considering what's happening in the wider society, you're much less likely to have a positive impact."

She said that the work on GBV should be embedded into the core purposes of universities and other institutions. She cautioned against putting the issue of GBV onto the side lines and into silos.

“This particular topic area and how we go about making meaningful change, has everything to do with how you are dealing with issues related to ethnicity and race on campus, and with gender in its wider context."

“The skills, conversations and relationships necessary to combat GBV are the same that are needed to make meaningful progress with regard to all these issues."

Burrowes agreed with Pithey that policy alone won't make a campus safe. She stressed that it was about the people, the culture and the community.

"A good result is not a wonderful reporting process. A good result is this doesn't happen on campus anymore."

“Justice is not just what happens to the perpetrator, justice is that you continue with your studies, that you don't have to drop out, that you're given all you need to heal and process your pain – so support is absolutely essential for that, " Burrowes stressed when talking about the meaning of justice for victims and survivors of GBV.

Photo credit: PIXABAY