Gender, sexuality and transformation in Higher Education

Panelists Professor Suren Pillay, Lisa Vetten, Nonhlanhla Sibanda-Moyo, Professor Deirdre Byrne and Gabriel Khan discussed solutions to the gender crisis in South African tertiary institutions. (Photo: Masimba Sasa)

Panelists Professor Suren Pillay, Lisa Vetten, Nonhlanhla Sibanda-Moyo, Professor Deirdre Byrne and Gabriel Khan discussed solutions to the gender crisis in South African tertiary institutions. (Photo: Masimba Sasa)

Guests in attendance were left with more questions than answers as Unisa and Mail & Guardian hosted a Critical Thinking Forum on September 20 aimed to unpack Gender, Sexuality and Transformation within Higher Education.

The panel of experts noted that institutes of higher education are shared spaces in which many worlds collide. There are still broad inequalities in South Africa and the capacities and resources available to tertiary institutions to address the problem at hand are often woefully inadequate.

The panel comprised of Professor Suren Pillay, who serves as the associate professor at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape; Lisa Vetten, a Mellon Doctoral Fellow at the Wits City Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand; and Nonhlanhla Sibanda-Moyo, a gender specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. The respondents in this discussion included two prominent thinkers: Dr Nthabiseng Motsemme, an academic director for scholarships at the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences; and Gabriel Khan, a programme policy officer for gender at the United Nations World Food Programme.

As noted in the welcoming remarks by Professor Vuyisile Msila, some of the topics have been marginalised over the decades, both consciously and unconsciously. He emphasised the urgent need for transformation in tertiary institutes today. “We need to seize the moment of changing the institution by not only accommodating diversity issues, but also understanding what these stand for. We need staff and students who will understand the continuously changing university.”

Diversity and its ever-changing dynamics continue to challenge institutions. “We tend to make it more difficult by not responding timeously, as we try to change the perceptions that people have. Given our past in South Africa, we still have to deal with the racial and ethnic aspects to better our institutions, yet gender equality still has to become one of the elements of change that we still have to respond to.”

Proffesor Suren Pillay bluntly stated that to say we have a problem with gender-based violence in our universities is to understate the matter. “The empirical nature of the problem and various legislative policy aspects require attention. There is a problem with our gender analysis with regards to gender-based violence, violence against women and homophobia or transphobia. We are not analysing all these issues together.”

Sibanda-Moyo wondered if the correct questions are being asked at all. “Are the structures, institutions and legal frameworks in place even appropriate to deal with this problem? What do we need to do now, and how do we do it?”

Critical interventions are urgently needed, evident in accounts of women’s and men’s lived realities and experiences. To educate on gender transformation, to seek an end to gender-based violence, the very structures upon which it is embedded must be dismantled. Pillay offered some thoughts about the context within which the problem exists, at conceptual, historical and theoretical levels.

Motsemme said that when we talk about gender and transformation in universities, we need to keep in mind the hidden and subliminal factors such as institutional cultures that continue to promote the marginalisation of women, ultimately through the ideologies of patriarchy and authoritarianism. “We need to name them so that we don’t end up reinforcing and reproducing them in our institutions.

“What we can draw from African women as a lens, is to produce an alternative epistemology, an alternative way of looking at the worldbased on African women’s experiences and philosophies. It gives us a model of change; it is part of a broader stage of the struggle against colonisation and the misrepresentation of both men and women. This then introduces models of alternative knowledge, [with] so many different ways of seeing these problems. We need to be unapologetic about using spirituality as a political tool. We need to be whole and fight the injustices, positioning the academic as one who fuses within this knowledge the head with the heart to understand the world.”

Lack of adequate leadership is evident as the lack of accountability and responsibility begins to ooze through to the foundations. Sibanda-Moyo said that as a country we are complacent, because we have taken something so abnormal and made it normal and part of our daily lives; she based this on the outcomes of her report. “We are in crisis because state institutions are failing women. The systems supposed to be protecting [us] have become the perpetrators. The criminal justice system can be seen as the perpetrator of structural violence in women’s lives. Women don’t speak out. They are saying that it costs to speak out. There are inadequate support systems once they speak out against the people they are economically dependent upon.”

Vetten said that there has been a resurgence of protectionism. “It sounds like you are very concerned about women, but it’s using violence as a way to put women back into relations of guardianship. They ‘need’ men to protect them. They need men to man up and stand up and protect them. That kind of relationship is not between equals. It’s a relationship between a parent and a child — a guardianship relationship. We should ask ourselves, why are we using that kind of language? In a sense, it contains the more radical impulses to challenging violence in the form of ‘women need men’s protection’. Using that language, how do you speak of women’s freedom, emancipation?”

As the recent “Research on gender violence, is South Africa in crisis?” report suggests, there is indeed a crisis; it is a matter of urgency to find workable solutions that incorporate all stakeholders and require them to play their part. Can the situation be salvaged? The need to awaken and educate all regarding gender transformation to end violence and dismantle the patriarchal structures upon which it is embedded is pressing. As the old adage states, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the next best is today. Alternatively, workable solutions are required so as to not repeat the mistakes of yesterday and sow a brighter future as we work towards the emancipation of all.