16 Days of Activism: Why attitude is key

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The international awareness campaign on 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children which is taking place from 25 November to 10 December 2018 provides an appropriate opportunity for higher-education institutions to reflect on a crucial issue that is touching the lives of so many women – including students and staff members – across the country, and the world.

A few months ago, a student of the University of the Free State (UFS) got into an argument with her boyfriend. There’s nothing unusual about a quarrelling couple. Except, in this case, the man proceeded to physically attack her, hitting her and violently pushing her around in full view of passers-by. This is unfortunately not an isolated incident, but one of many reported on a regular basis on our campuses of higher education across the country. In a 2016 study done at the University of the Witwatersrand, close to 27% of students, 17% of academic staff, and 13% of administrative staff reported that they had experienced at least one incident of gender-based violence.  

In a recent summit convened by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Minister Naledi Pandor told student leaders and representatives of universities and colleges that there was an urgent need to finalise the departmental policy on gender-based violence at institutions of higher learning. She had earlier revealed to Parliament that 47 rape cases at various universities had been reported in 2017 alone.

It is alarming figures like these that have urged the UFS to recently adopt our own progressive policy on sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual violence. It states unequivocally that the UFS will not tolerate these types of conduct in any form, and that firm action will be taken against any person proven guilty thereof. It also clearly outlines the formal and informal resolution processes to be followed in gender-based violence incidents, and it clearly identifies where complaints can be lodged on campus.

Previous incidents on campuses all over the country have taught us that many victims ultimately choose to abandon their complaints when an institution has no clear policy in place on how to deal with them and there seems to be uncertainty about the exact process to follow in reporting them.

It is true that policies alone do not constitute an ultimate solution; but they provide a starting point. In the case of the assaulted student, the incident was reported to the university’s Gender and Sexual Equality office, and the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) immediately kicked into action. SART is made up of business units across the university’s three campuses and works according to a set process flow to provide legal, medical and counselling services to victims of gender-based violence, primarily aimed at minimising trauma for the victim.                                                                                        

Referring to the UFS student, SART team members assisted her to draft a statement at the university’s Protection Services and subsequently report the matter to the South African Police Services. They also arranged for her to go to a victim support centre, and to get an interim protection order against the offender. Later on, they accompanied her to court where a final order was obtained.

The SART team also looked into her academic programme to establish whether it was necessary to postpone tests or assignments until she had time to recover. After indicating that she didn’t feel safe walking alone to and from her off-campus student house anymore, SART managed to arrange accommodation for her on campus. It is support initiatives such as this that ease the minds of the families and friends of victims of sexual assault.

The way we respond to incidents like these is of vital importance. But even more important is trying to prevent it from happening in the first place. And here the prevailing attitude towards women and their role in society is key.

In a report on crime against women released earlier this year, Statistics South Africa makes this important point: “Non-progressive attitudes and beliefs among the people of South Africa, including women, remain a major challenge in fighting crime against women.” The report shows that 3,3% of men and 2,3% of women in South Africa think it is acceptable for a man to hit a woman.  Stats SA conclude that: “It is not possible to eliminate violence against women when there are women who still believe that it is acceptable to be hit by a man.”

I believe institutions of higher learning have a vital role to play in shaping, and where necessary, transforming the attitudes of men and women towards women’s role and status in our society. Our paths intersect with those of young people during a pivotal time in their lives. A time when many of them are away from home for the first time, having their first taste of freedom from parental control, making their own decisions. A time where they form opinions about a wide array of topics. A time when budding attitudes – good or bad – can either become entrenched or be changed. 

Like elsewhere in the country, the UFS has various initiatives to ensure students’ safety. These include security cameras, proper lighting on pedestrian routes, a Student Crime Stop WhatsApp group, vehicle patrols, as well as various safety awareness campaigns to communicate safety tips. This contribute to creating a safe space in a physical sense.

But a university should also be a safe intellectual space, where opinions about attitudes towards women can be freely expressed, tested, and challenged. That is why we are planning a series of dialogues in 2019, with information sessions and robust discussions around our sexual misconduct policies. However, words and discussions mean little if they’re not put into practice. Our university campuses should also be true caring spaces, where our students and staff can experience on a daily basis how their human rights are acknowledged, respected, and protected.

A last word on our student mentioned in the opening paragraph: She lost both her parents and didn’t want to upset her elderly grandmother by telling her about the incident. By assisting and advising her, the SART members ultimately did more than just render a professional service. They stepped into the family gap. I believe this kind of care-in-action has done more to convince our young victim of her own worth than a thousand campaign words ever could.

And that’s the challenge we face as institutions of higher learning: To be small ‘model societies’, where principles such as social justice, inclusivity, and caring are reflected in all aspects of university life – from curriculum content, to teaching models, to residence cultures, to governance and policies – ultimately becoming so entrenched in our students’ DNA that once they leave our campuses, they become agents for changed attitudes themselves and can help transform our wider communities into safer spaces.

Professor Francis Petersen is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.