Tackling the invisible issue of sexual violence on campus

Sexual violence was the focus of the dialogue held at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) on the 19th of August 2015.

The forum was hosted by the International Centre of Nonviolence (ICON) in association with Agenda Feminist Media, the Durban University of Technology and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The dialogue was organised to tackle the issue of sexual violence on campus and the campus community. The feminist dialogue opened up discussions about the topic of sexual violence, what the effects of sexual violence are and how it can be addressed. The dialogue was aimed at the students of DUT to raise awareness and educate students and also give them a platform to speak about it.

Prof Sibusiso Moyo, the Director of Research and Development at DUT, called sexual violence an “invisible issue” as the matter is not spoken about openly and students, whether male or female, are scared to talk about their experiences because they fear that they will be victimised.

A panel of five young women university students, three from DUT and two from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), spoke about their understanding and experiences of sexual violence on their different campuses. The students offered possible policy and other approaches to dealing with sexual violence on campuses.

The students of NMMU have been actively involved in putting together policy action briefs and negotiating with structures at NMMU to prevent gender violence’s occurrence and to fight against institutional apathy in responding to the problem. The students said stricter rules and policy were needed on their campus. One of their policy briefs was a response to the problem of contractors and renovators that work on their campus. They spoke about how unsafe it is to have workers in their campus residence when they were not alerted. “Men who are workers would constantly stare at us” said the NMMU student. They proposed that the solution was to inform the students before any contractors entered the residence. As women they need to be notified in advance as they were vulnerable to harassment in showers and other places where no outsiders were allowed access.

Students from DUT who are apart of young women’s leadership project attend a weekly group meeting about sexual violence spoke about their idea of what sexual violence is, how women are vulnerable and the solutions that they identified. Among the causes of sexual violence on campus they raised included the problem of parties where female students drink too much liquor and are then vulnerable to being preyed upon. They also identified the trend where peer pressure and the desire to have better phones and clothing like their friends can open students to prostituting themselves or to getting into exploitative relationships with so-called sugar daddies that eventually become abusive. Another problem that was highlighted was that students do not only get harassed on campus but are victimised on their way to and from home or residence. The students feel unsafe when travelling to and from campus because their residence is in a dangerous area or there are street vendors that make sexist comments to them that makes them uncomfortable.

While one of the most serious sexual violations is rape, students raised the issue of social silencing that keeps it hidden. A student gave the example of a pastor who had allegedly raped and impregnated multiple women. Nothing happened to him because women were too scared to report him. Rape is a serious social problem because the attacker is often someone close to the victim and the victim never feels safe enough to speak up and report the crime to the police.

Some of the solutions that were discussed by the students were 24 hour counselling where students would be able to get help if they have been sexually abused and to hold a regular gender forum where students will be allowed to talk about the problem of sexual violence. A forum would encourage others talk about the issue, give students a platform to speak out against sexual violence and for students to participate in creating rules and policies to ensure that they do not become victims of sexual violence. It was suggested that there should also be gender training so that students are made aware of the problem of gender inequality to bring about a shift in attitudes and to question the tacit acceptance of a culture that often treats gender violence as normal.

Prof. Thenjiwe Meyiwa, the Registrar DUT, concurred with the solutions that were given and encouraged the idea of more dialogues to gain knowledge of what the students are experiencing on campus. “It is the responsibility of people to speak out against the issue of sexual violence and prevent it from happening to students” said Meyiwa.