LGBTIQ in higher education – what do we know and what have we done about it?

Eliminating all forms of gender-based violence from South African campuses will be a giant leap towards achieving more graduates, and with time, reducing poverty in our country.

If education is the most effective weapon we can use to change the world, and if gender equality is a pre-condition for meeting the challenges of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance, then surely the fastest way for South Africa to transform itself out of poverty is by ensuring its higher education students have every means to assist them with attaining their qualifications.

Quality lecturers, solid content that follows carefully evaluated syllabuses, decent lecture halls, libraries and campus facilities that provide students with an environment conducive to effective learning are all fundamental, if not rather obvious, requirements for institutions of higher education.

Equally, orientation programmes designed to create an open and engaging atmosphere on campus, the stimulation of enlightening social discourse among learners through peer panels, clubs and sports, and the numerous other activities in which students can become involved, all contribute to a healthy, well-rounded tertiary learning experience for students.

In a report examining poverty trends in South Africa between 2005 and 2016, statistician general Dr Pali Lehohla observed that the higher a person’s qualifications, the more likely they are to be employed in the formal labour force.

HeAids chief executive Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia

Student safety

But fundamental to all of this — and this is the bedrock of any effective learning environment — is the assurance of safety and security for students. If a student feels vulnerable for any reason whatsoever, then even the most sophisticated learning facilities count for nothing. And at South African universities and colleges, the most common threat to student safety is gender-based violence (GBV).

GBV is defined as any form of violence — usually sexual — based on gender. Violence against people who are LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersexual) is unfortunately common at institutions of higher learning.

Higher Education and Training health Wellness and Development Centre (HeAids) chief executive Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia believes the LGBTIQ group is substantially more vulnerable to the psychological effects of targeted violence; the repercussions of such abuse are often dire.

“South Africa’s Constitution allows a young person at age 15, equivalent to grade eight, to attend TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) colleges, or from aged 17, university. These are sensitive ages, not yet adult, and these youngsters, often from rural and economically deprived backgrounds, are entering an environment of unbound freedom, where there is no parental guidance, no guardian control. Often these teenagers are immature, and still questioning and exploring their sexuality,” explains Ahluwalia.

Education institutions are often the extension of the views of general society. Members of the LGBTIQ community — whether openly so or not — often become victims of discrimination and stigmatisation by fellow students and are harassed, intimidated, bullied or assaulted for their sexual orientation. This often results in social withdrawal, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, and even psychosis and suicide. Deterioration in academic performance is almost inevitable.

“Ninety-six percent of students at TVET colleges come from historically disadvantaged families, and the onus is on them to pull their families out of poverty. Education is often their only hope — sending a chosen son or daughter to college to qualify with a technical skill that will enable him or her to get a job, is a way to avoid a bleak future — that child will become the breadwinner for the entire family. That ‘black tax’ is crucial for South Africa to transform its society out of poverty.”

But, says Ahluwalia, if institutes of higher learning continue turning a blind eye to ensuring the physical and psychological safety of a certain minority group within the student body, then South Africa is allowing that group to fail in achieving a qualification and emancipate themselves and their families from poverty.

Progress against GBV

Much progress has been achieved to bring the spotlight onto GBV in higher education. The Higher Education and Training Gender-based Violence Policy and Strategic Framework, a document developed by the Higher Education and Training Health, Wellness and Development Centre in consultation with various organisations, including various technical teams within the United Nations, is currently with Cabinet for approval, and is expected to be put into action before the end of 2018.

Ahluwalia says the framework is groundbreaking, an important step in tackling an issue that has been troubling South Africans for decades. It presents guidelines to ensure safer campuses, and outlines minimum standards that universities and colleges must follow to prevent GBV. Once approved, the policy will be the first of its kind in Africa, and has been welcomed across all universities and colleges across the country.

“This is enormous progress in the fight against GBV. It wasn’t long ago that GBV could not be discussed. This policy will force the kind of attention it deserves, including structural changes and investment. We’ve lost so many lives through GBV, and so much human potential.”

Ahluwalia believes the introduction of the policy across higher education institutions in South Africa will pave the way for a similar policy, specifically for the LGBTIQ community.

“Just as we are making headway with legislation against the broader issue of gender-based violence, so we also need to be more specific by focusing on providing a safe environment for students who do not conform to any particular gender, and those who are transforming their own genders towards LGBTI, so they are able to survive, study and graduate.”

The bottom line is that gender should not play any role at all in whether a student excels in their studies or not. Be they male, female, transgender, asexual or intersexual, every student has the right to never feeling threatened during their period of study. Every university, college and institution of higher education should assure a conducive learning environment for every person, regardless of gender.

What needs to be done

Ahluwalia maintains that LGBTIQ issues should be openly discussed within the higher education community, and the discussions need to happen at all levels.

“From senior management level and student governing bodies through to members of staff at our learning institutions, education not only about the existence of LGBTIQ needs to happen, but acknowledgment that that those living LGBTIQ are stigmatised and victimised, and need to be protected. That protection begins with open discussion, dialogue, debates and engagement at all levels, demystifying LGBTIQ among the broader population.”

Campuses need to become gender inclusive, rather than gender specific. Healthcare workers at campus clinics need to become skilled in offering psycho-social support, trauma counselling and other assistance to LGBTIQ people.

Wardens of student residences, student support services and student representative council bodies need to be engaged in a frank and transparent way to sensitise them to the needs of LGBTIQ students.

The topic of LGBTIQ and gender non-conformance should be included in the student orientation week, destigmatising non-gender conformance from the moment a student arrives on campus, so that every student is viewed equally.

“We will not be able to transform the perceptions of the broader population unless we first transform the people who are responsible for putting in place the societal conformities that are gender specific,” concludes Ahluwalia.

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