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Protecting women on campuses is a priority


The University of the Witwatersrand and the country at large, mourn the death of Asithandile “Kwasa” Zozo, a 20-year-old student who was stabbed to death on August 17 by a man alleged to be her partner. Her crime? She refused to commit to a relationship with him.

In August 2019, South Africans took to the streets in protest following the death of University of Cape Town (UCT) student, 19-year-old Uyinene Mrwetyana who was raped, tortured and bludgeoned to death by now convicted Luyanda Botha. Her crime? Collecting a parcel at the post office.

Precious Ramabulana, Jesse Hess, Shanice Jonathan, Akhona Mncube and Naledi Phangindawo, Zintle Muthwa; just a few young South African women, not remembered for the contributions they made on society, but for their horrific murders at the hands of men.

South Africa has strong gender policies and progressive laws in the economic, social and political spheres which are designed to promote and protect women and girls in all their diversity.

Notwithstanding these pioneering strides, our country still battles with staggering statistics of gender-based violence (GBV) and globally one of the highest rates of femicide. In 2016, the World Health Organisation reported that South Africa recorded the fourth highest female death rate linked to violence among 183 countries, following behind Honduras, Jamaica and Lesotho.

South African crime statistics for 2018–2019 reveal more than 2 700 women and 1 000 children murdered and 30 626 cases of rape reported.

During lockdown, a surge in these numbers was triggered. Within the first week of lockdown more than 2000 cases of GBV were reported. The scale of violence intensified in subsequent months.

One can compellingly argue that GBV is a pandemic with far greater consequences, posing a graver danger and more threatening to the social fabric of our society than the novel coronavirus. United Nations Women has termed GBV the “shadow pandemic” growing and intensifying the world over, alongside Covid-19.

Where the latter is a unilateral pandemic that is likely to be solved through the development of a vaccine and herd immunity, the former is a multi-dimensional pandemic with no straight-forward remedy.

GBV is a complex issue perpetuated largely by unequal power relations embedded in different economic, political, cultural and social structures. Violence reproduces and reinforces these unequal social relations.

To address GBV requires that we dismantle structural as well as societal obstacles such as unemployment, poverty and patriarchy.

These same issues exist in a microcosm of the South African society, which is the post-schooling education sector (PSET). The sector can contribute to the elimination of GBV, in collaboration with government and social partners.

Legislative framework

In 2016, the wellness and development centre, Higher Health, an agency of the department of higher education and training (DHET), began a journey marked by rigorous intra- and inter-sectoral stakeholder consultation process with students, academia, management, sister government departments and global entities to formulate a legislative framework to address these alarming statistics.

With experience from their 183 member states, the UN Women and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) have been at the heart of the GBV policy framework formulation. 

The minister of higher education and training Dr Blade Nzimande recently promulgated the framework, marking a renaissance in the PSET sector, which aims to:

  • Create an enabling environment to inform, prevent, support and monitor GBV in PSET institutions;
  • Promote the safety of students and staff by putting in place comprehensive awareness and prevention measures;
  • Provide comprehensive, specialised support and other assistance to survivors and, where possible, perpetrators of GBV;
  • Ensure accountability and proper governance; and
  • Enforce disciplinary and general systems strengthening, including cases of sexual harassment.

This policy framework seeks to become a part of the solution, not only to address gender-based violence in institutions of higher learning, but also to consult broadly with society and communities in curbing the scourge. 

How do we ensure its implementation?

Learning from UN Women’s HeForShe Impact Champions programme for universities, the policy will ensure that prevention programmes are a requirement for the orientation of new learners as well as a core part of their learning journey. For example, universities that have reported reductions in GBV have used intense and continuous dialogues, particularly among male students, to challenge stereotypes and redefine their attitudes and relationships with women. The Good Lad programme at Oxford University calls out toxic masculinity.

Capacity development, disciplinary systems and security have also proven to be critical gaps to be addressed. 

The recently launched psychosocial support toll-free number provides 24-hour support to all survivors, victims and perpetrators. 

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, support to perpetrators — along with consequences determined by our criminal justice system — offers opportunities for rehabilitation and change at the broader societal level.

Peer-led education and advocacy programmes and a perpetrator screening programme to allow for swift action and support where necessary, are also being developed.

The policy framework prescribes that each institution adapts the policy, accompanied by a customised GBV pledge, to respond its unique social and structural matrix.

It also requires partnership with men. This will pivot on sustained conversations to expose gender dynamics, infuse a sense of accountability and capacitate men to take responsibility for their actions in relation to the safety of women on campus, in communities and inside their homes.

The UNFPA has supported the development of a men’s assembly as well as a sexual and gender education curriculum. It is through having a holistic approach that we are likely to get better outcomes. 

Higher Health programmes are already present on all campuses and together with the HeForShe programme will ensure that behaviour-change platforms are institutionalised and embedded into the overall GBV response.

A study conducted by the UNDP and UN Women in 2019 indicated that there is a pervasive culture of “by-standerism”, where perpetrators, victims and the abuse are known but no action is taken because “domestic issues should be respected as private”. 

Changing the culture of patriarchy that persists in post-schooling environments will require consultation  with the institutions that shape such behaviour. These include faith organisations and traditional leaders but also media and pop-culture groups who together shape the positive or negative choices of young people and influence their gender relationships.

We have a policy informed by global best practice; we have proven tactics. Now is the time to remove this generation of female students off the endangered list.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Anne Githuku-Shongwe
Anne Githuku-Shongwe is the representative for UN Women’s South Africa Multi-Country Office (Samco)
Beatrice Mutali
Beatrice Mutali is the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) representative for South Africa
Ramneek Ahluwalia
Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia is chief executive of Higher Health SA, a registered medical practitioner with the national medical councils of India, Mauritius and South Africa. He is a physician with clinical and allied health care management experience, and holds an MBA and PhD in public health

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