HEAIDS Student Dialogue on Sexual and Gender-based violence at University of Zululand

Sex-for-marks, sexual favours, harassment of colleagues and students, and sexual and gender-based violence are the main topics of university and college dialogues aimed at reducing the high levels of rape in the higher education and training sector.

Today, the University of Zululand hosted the first 2017 SGBV dialogue in the sector, involving government, students and staff, experts and advocates and the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) – national organisation which coordinates initiatives for better student health and wellness.

South Africa experiences some of the world’s highest levels of SGBV – particularly harmful as it is a factor in the spread of HIV, itself a major challenge in the country. Because of age, attitudes and behaviours towards sexuality, youth and students are at increased risk.

Due to social inequalities and patriarchal attitudes prevailing in many communities, adolescent girls and young women are disproportionately affected by both. Sexual minorities including the LGBTI community is also on the receiving end of SGBV, but their risk and needs are regularly overlooked.

The 76 universities and colleges that are members of the HEAIDS programme last year initiated coordinated discussions and plans to address the situation.

These include holding dialogues with students and staff at higher education and training institutions with the aim of bringing problems and real-life experiences into the open, stimulating action and introspection and gathering evidence on causes and responses to the problem. These factors will pave the way for the introduction of a robust sector-wide strategy against SGBV later this year.

Deputy Minister Mduduzi Manana was among the participants at today’s dialogue.

“Today at the University of Zululand we begin this year’s intense campaign to make the education sector more responsive and participative in tackling SGBV.

“We need to face the same ugly reality in our own institutions – this is where sexual and gender-based violence frequently takes place. We need to be clear and call the problems by their right name if we want to elicit action. Rape and sexual violations happen because of anger and disempowerment. Because of arrogance. A sense of entitlement.

“No matter what the underlying cause, it is always wrong and it is always unacceptable to those it intends to hurt, to our families, within our sector and across our country,” said Deputy Minister Manana in his remarks during the dialogue.

Deputy Minister said that research shows that targets of sexual harassment and particularly sex-for-marks practices are often those who are more vulnerable among students and staff – and they are also those who fear reporting incidents.

Ultimately this establishes a culture of silence and quiet acceptance – in Deputy Minister’s view the very reason why trust in reporting and managing these violations is low and the response inadequate.

Deputy Minister said: “Reports to our department have indicated that there is a need for a more coherent and thoughtful sectoral approach. This is why we are here today, to hear from you, the students and staff working in our sector, so we can provide the support that is needed to make our universities and colleges safe.”

The event at University of Zululand and its sister universities and colleges are part of strengthening and deepening HIV/AIDS prevention and support and other initiatives to deal with risks to student health and ability to complete studies – including alcohol and drugs abuse which exacerbate violence and sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

Many but not all higher education institutions, which work with two million students and staff across some 420 campuses, have policies and programmes dedicated to reducing and dealing with SGBV.

Reports of incidents and institutional, legal and health-related responses indicate inconsistent application of policies and availability of services. Inadequate protection and assistance for rape survivors and ineffective prosecution of perpetrators are often a concern, and contribute to compounding the harm caused by sexual assaults in the first place.

 The SGBV initiative involves the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme (HEAIDS) and role players from higher education institutions, research and capacity building organisations, government departments, social, police and justice services and the NGOs working in this field.

 “The decade-long work by HEAIDS and many partners to bring youth-friendly accessible services to campuses so students and staff can take ownership of their health and wellness has built a valuable platform from which we can begin to engage on the issues of rape and violence,” says Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Director of HEAIDS.

 He highlights that SGBV cannot be tackled in isolation – illustrated by World Health Organization studies which suggest that 65% of partner violence in the country is associated with abuse of alcohol and drugs.

 “The considered approach we wish to adopt in designing and rolling out a programme aimed at protecting our students and staff rests on dialogue with all affected and primarily those at greatest risk – the female students. With united commitment and resources, we believe we can ensure progress across our big sector so that no one feels alone and powerless. Our collective action will allow us to achieve two major goals: build a safety net for those at risk and eliminate spaces where those who engage in rape and violence can hide,” Dr Ahluwalia concludes.