Tertiary institutions are not islands of goodwill

THERE are unwritten rules in all institutions. Some can be as simple and non-threatening as “don’t park in the boss’s parking bay” or “don’t sit in so-and-so’s chair in the staff-room”, but others can be malevolent and damaging as “don’t talk about sexual harassment, it’s your personal issue”.

The reports on the Walter Sisulu University “sex-for-marks” scandal[about 2 weeks ago] have received much attention as some students dared to break the rules about keeping quiet on this issue. But I can’t help but wonder, why are we so surprised?
Are we surprised that there are people who possibly abuse power in tertiary institutions or are we surprised that someone spoke up in spite of the potential complexities of the cases?

The reports have zoned in on various issues: the claims and demands made by the students involved as well as the student body, the defence from the lecturers, the university’s response to the scandal and more students coming forward with their stories after a period of time. As is the norm in any sexual harassment or sexual violence case, there is always the inner conflict between believing the vulnerable “victim” and scorning the abuser, while at the same time at the back of our minds asking “is she really telling the truth?” The burden of proof is placed on the woman to prove that her claim is in fact the truth.

That said, we cannot ignore the grey areas, the cases of “girls who cry wolf” and possibility of demonising men. The cloud of doubt that surrounds these cases is one of the factors that hinder genuinely victimised students from coming forward with their stories. In a society rife with the abuse of women on various levels, and the constant discourse (from both men and women) of doubt and blame attached to women, I am not surprised that only a few students at WSU have come forward with their stories and that only three lecturers are facing hearings.

But the reality is that tertiary institutions are not islands of goodwill where those in power always use their positions with integrity. They exist within a patriarchal society that is slowly recognising that women are not simply sex objects.

The university’s response within a few days has also been interesting to note. All institutions have a zero tolerance approach to the harassment of students and staff alike, but the tension of policy and institutional culture makes the issue more complex. The student who reported the case had to seek external assistance from the Public Protector. Why were the internal processes of supporting the student insufficient? Again, the question of doubt and silence attached to these cases is relevant here. Policy may recognise the injustice of the situation on paper but institutions have to recognise that the unwritten rules and everyday banter are often the most powerful rules that prevent people from speaking up.

In 2008 the following extract was part of the Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institution:
“Given both the subtle and insidious forms of gender discrimination and harassment being experienced by female students on several campuses, it is recommended that institutions take serious steps to both protect and promote the interests of women. These could include gender sensitisation campaigns, aimed at everybody, and confidence-building training programmes, aimed at women in particular”.
Not only is this evidence that the “sex-for-marks” scandal is a pervasive culture in our tertiary institutions, this is also a challenge to changing institutional culture rather than keeping quiet about the issues.

However, changing institutional culture within a broader context where the abuse of women is still the norm is no easy task. It may take the lone voice of a single student or mass campaigns where people rally around this issue to stop condoning the culture of silence. The scandal is yet another reminder that the dignity of all parties involved is at stake. In spite of the complexities highlighted in an opinion article in the Daily Dispatch earlier this week, these stories cannot be taken lightly. Access to higher education does not simply mean enrolment numbers, it should also mean that all students, men and women, become part of institutions that will ensure they thrive as scholars, where they will not be discriminated against because they happen to have taken their vagina to campus that morning.

(This first appeared in Saturday Dispatch,5 March 2011 in response to reports about harassment cases in WSU,a university in the Eastern Cape)

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