Who does the university keep out? Who is keeping safe within its walls?

Speakers and respondents at the Critical Thinking Forum on Gender, Sexuality and Transformation attempt to find solutions to break the cycle of violence. (Photo: Masimba Sasa)

Speakers and respondents at the Critical Thinking Forum on Gender, Sexuality and Transformation attempt to find solutions to break the cycle of violence. (Photo: Masimba Sasa)

Students of Rhodes and the University of Stellenbosch rehashed the forgotten crisis rife on campuses across the nation — a crisis which not too long ago magnified the inherent flaws within the current structures at institutions of higher learning. Many had and still have to bear the brunt of this recurring issue, which is a microcosm for the broader issues within our society. How do we deal with the socioeconomic conditions that further fuel the violence and frustration currently on display?

Deep-seated, entrenched attitudes about sexual entitlement and violence towards women still exist despite the nice rhetoric about freedom and equality. History will repeat itself if we don’t take heed.

How is gender-based violence different from general violence in society? Is such a question necessary to unpack the phenomenon? Are these types of violence completely separate phenomena, and are they different from male-on-male violence? A renaissance of thinking surrounding the possible causes and social conditions that cause such violence needs to occur right now.

The terms used in this day and age need to fundamentally cater to all members of society, as many of them emphasise division or the “other” rather than unity.

Such terms can eventually create a plethora of problems and separate out the types of violence that exist, instead of dealing with the root causes of violence as a whole. Lisa Vetten, a Mellon Doctoral Fellow at the Wits City Institute, said: “Ideas born from 70s radical feminism around rape culture close us off from dealing with the problem. The term ‘rape culture’ can suggest that some things are not as serious as others and you should just get over it, or [give rise to] the rhetoric that ‘it could’ve been worse’…does the language and thinking suffice in terms of identifying the problem?”

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation recently conducted a study entitled Violence Against Women in South Africa, a Country in Crisis. It highlighted the experiences of women and their perceptions of why violence occurs. It was found that women who are at the receiving end of violence from the four provinces the survey was conducted in, believe the country is indeed in crisis.

Nonhlanhla Sibanda-Moyo, who relayed the results, noted that the heightened media reporting is a reaffirmation of women’s realities. She also concluded that violence against women has become a “normal” part of their lives, as it’s not a single event that happens, but part of their life story from childhood to adulthood — hence it seems to be cyclical.

The study also found that the perpetrators of violence against women can be anyone, particularly those who are meant to be the custodians of the various institutions that are designed to prevent or even tackle violence against women. The safety of women in such spaces is still questionable, due to existing structural designs and norms.

Sibanda-Moyo explicitly stated: “We are in crisis, because the stats around violence towards women speak for themselves. It has been described as enduring.”

Blaming these issues on patriarchy alone is not productive in the long run. There are many factors at hand that contribute to the dire straits we find ourselves in. Finding the underlying causes may help to change our ways of thinking.

Vetten said that in talking about prevention, we can’t just be thinking about the accepted ways of ending violence towards women. The re-emergence of protectionism in relation to women is not the answer, yet it seems to be ingrained in many campaigns that claim to be concerned about the welfare of women. Vetten said this reinforces the notion that women need men to protect them.

“Using that language, how do you speak of women’s freedom, emancipation? In terms of moving forward, we need to focus on more practical policy interventions; not only on how to make campuses safer, but the way we speak and envisage a different way in which men and women rely on relations of guardianship.”

The issue of patriarchy and racism also contributes to the institutionalised agendas we are witnessing today. Dr Nthabiseng Motsemme, an academic director for Scholarships at the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, noted: “These un-named, oppressive, institutionalised ideologies promote alienation. In terms of how we define merit and advancement, these are based on a male notion of time. The reproductive cycle of women is not taken into account, which produces an advantage for men when women are absent …”

To her, the hidden institutional ideology is also a strong argument. “In order to create inclusive cultures, universities need to interrogate this universal idea of whiteness and patriarchy, made invisible.” Addressing institutional cultures and hidden ideologies is key, Motsemme noted.

With student activism playing a huge role in the history of South Africa, the higher education spaces can be places of resistance to oppressive systems, or they can be places of silencing, noted Gabriel Khan, programme policy officer for gender at the United Nations World Food Programme. “I wonder who the university is keeping safe then? Who is it keeping out? The buildings they inhabit, they too reinforce the binary and division of the bathroom and every space we go [to]. A violent structure that we created and reinforced. How do we undo that violent structure? Will universities grow to be places of silencing and neutralising political conversations, or do we think about not only changing the way we think about gender and sexuality, but changing our structures to remain and continue being open to all?”

Khan said that sexual violence is a cycle that reproduces itself, and we are all participants in this violent cycle as South Africans. We see the rest of Africa as conflict-ridden, but the levels of violent crime that persist here indicate that we, too, are a country in conflict. It is not happening over there, it is something we should own! Is this a crisis without hope, one may ask? The need to awaken and educate all regarding gender transformation to end violence and dismantle the structures upon which it is imbedded is a matter of urgency for all. The centuries-old systematic thinking and notions require new terms and actions to deal with the immensity of the problems that persist or else we will continue to merely rearrange the decks of an already sinking Titanic.

This content was approved by Unisa