A safe haven in a sea of sexual violence




The darkness that has befallen us is affecting the emotional state and wellbeing of people and the country. We are at war with ourselves; a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa. As a nation and a university community we stand ashamed and distraught.

In the aftermath of the murders of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana and University of the Western Cape student Jesse Hess, and rapes that happened in the same week on other campuses, the university community and women in every sector of our society are crying “Enough!”. It’s been a long time coming in a country that is an extremely violent one for women and children, and we extend our deepest sympathies to all families and communities who have lost loved ones because of this evil.

Millions of women and children in our country daily experience this evil, and have either personally been attacked, raped and abused, or know several people who have. At this very moment it is happening. It calls for extreme measures against violence, including the xenophobic violence that has surged again.

It is eating away at our humanity. And while this is happening we are experiencing the failure of law and order, a breakdown and near collapse of policing, safety and security. We are in deep trouble; as a people we are in distress. These afflictions come from our societies, our communities, our institutions, and we need to own up to them, and act.

Universities and colleges are microcosms of society, with all the ills of broader society, and at the same time it is our duty to protect our students and staff. On our campus at Nelson Mandela University we have strong sexual harassment and offences policies and committees, security systems, and student counselling and protection services to address all forms of gender- and sexual-based violence, intimidation, abuse, harassment or any issues that our staff or students feel aggrieved about. But it is not enough.

To catapult our response to gender- and sexual-based violence and all forms of violence experienced on campus against females or males, our task team, including students activists, student counselling and our university leadership, is establishing a Safe Haven support system.

The Safe Haven will include:

l A secluded space where the survivors of violations can live while they are supported to transition back into their normal routines. Women with unplanned child deliveries and complications from pregnancy terminations can also recover here;

l A series of connecting safe spaces on campus where activists and individuals working on issues of gender- and sexual-based violence can operate, and students feeling unsafe can seek help; and

l Linkages with off-campus gender hubs, which themselves have to be safe.

The Safe Haven is part of a multi-pronged strategy to end the abuse of women at our university. This extends to strong and deliberate advocacy for gender equality, women’s empowerment and zero tolerance of gender- and sexual-based violence at the highest level of our governance and management structures. It also includes ongoing academic research on gender equality and gender- and sexual-based violence, increased platforms for debate and dissemination, and advocating for national policies and strategies to address gender- and sexual-based violence.

As the university leadership we have learned never to be complacent about our efforts to address this very challenging reality. At one of our graduation ceremonies this year, young women conducted a silent demonstration with tape across their mouths and placards stating: “My rapist is graduating today”. The university respected their right to responsible protest and urgent steps are being taken to address their grievances.

Our legal and criminal justice systems also need scrutiny. Last year, at the Gender Violence and Femicide Summit, Judge Mandisa Maya pointed out that “many laudable strides have been taken in the legal sphere to address the scourge of gender-based violence and femicide and the social consequences associated with it in our society. But those strides have simply not been up to the challenge.”

One of many issues we have to face, and it’s a very difficult one, is to lift the veil of secrecy around domestic violence. At the recent funeral of medical doctor and businesswoman Dr Thandi Ndlovu we learnt from women close to her that her former husband physically and emotionally abused her for 10 years. When she tried to lay a charge of domestic violence at the police station, she was told to “go home and fix things with your husband”.

Women in every sphere of society are experiencing violence, not only at the hands of strangers, but often at the hands of their intimate partners, associates and family members. The fact is that far too many men are abusing women. The focus needs to shift from women to men.

At our universities and in our businesses and communities we need men to talk about this. Every business and institution should be zero tolerant of sexual- and gender-based harassment and violence, and the sanctions, as is the case with broad-based black economic empowerment , industry charters, social and labour plans, and safety requirements, should be severe and felt by all human rights violators.

As a society, we all need to understand what it is that socialises little boys into men who rape, abuse and murder women. What is the blind spot that we are not seeing? How are we contributing to changing gender power relations and the way women and girls are viewed in our society?

We need to address the thinking and culture across society, including education, health, sport, religion, businesses, political and state structures. Can we address the issue of gender- and sexual-based violence at the beginning of every soccer match or at the assemblies of every school; at political meetings, company meetings, during the opening prayers of our faith institutions? How do we mobilise ourselves to end this rape culture and gender- and sexual-based violence that is destroying the fabric of our society by killing women and children?

Have the murders of Uyinene and Jesse, as the symbols of a society in darkness, been the trigger to propel us into collective action and to start bringing in some light? Are we motivated to break the silence, to stop turning a deaf ear when we hear women calling out for help?

Each one of us needs to ask ourselves: “What am I doing to contribute to change?”

Professor Sibongile Muthwa is vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela University, Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi is the chancellor and Dr Nozipho January-Bardill is its chair of council

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