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Change the world

24/11/2023

Data from Statistics SA shows that rape and sexual violence have become hyperendemic, with 51% of local women saying they have experienced gender-based violence (GBV), and 76% of men admitting to perpetrating it, according to the Africa Health Organisation (AHO), which further notes a prevalence of femicide, rape and intimate partner violence.

 

Ruby-Ann Levendal  24 November 2023

We are a nation at war with itself, both economically and socially, and women are caught in the crossfire. Around 51.1% (30.5 million) of South Africa’s population is female and more economically vulnerable than men, owing to higher unemployment rates and poverty levels, according to Statistics SA. Black African women are the most severely affected.

Nelson Mandela University is mindful of the civic mission of higher education institutions to contribute towards tangible, positive societal change, including eradicating GBV.

An ongoing, integrated effort is needed to overcome this blight, as highlighted by recent attacks at sister universities – the assault of a student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) – and the tragic loss of one of our own students to femicide this year.

Our effort to root out this societal plague is underpinned by condemnation of all acts of violence on our campuses and within our communities, particularly as we embark on the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence on 25 November, a global campaign to end violence against women and children.

In South Africa, many university students are from poor backgrounds, entering our institutions with a fervent desire to educate and empower themselves for better futures.

Societal violence scuppers these opportunities, impacting students, staff, management and the families of victims, and undermines our efforts to create safe spaces for learning, teaching, research and innovation.

Zero tolerance

Nelson Mandela University employs a multi-pronged approach, thanks to the establishment of the transformation and engagement portfolio in 2021, the formation of the Centre for Women and Gender Studies, the efforts of various working groups, ongoing advocacy and the improvement in the institution’s own reporting, support and accountability processes.

Our approach is a work-in-progress, but we are determined to do what we can, consistently seeking ways to improve processes and mechanisms. What we have put in place is far from perfect, but holds immense value, not only for ourselves but for other institutions and businesses facing similar challenges.

Previously, there were no prescribed protocols for equality-related complaints other than the ordinary student and staff complaints mechanisms. These would, therefore, be investigated as any other complaint, without the investigator having the required competencies to conduct such nuanced investigations.

The disciplinary procedures also did not change to include the necessary expertise to assess such complaints and were processed in the same manner as misconduct such as theft or plagiarism.

When the equality-related policies were developed, provision was made for this type of complaint to be directed to the Transformation Office, where a person with the relevant training and expertise could investigate it.

These reports serve before a panel that has received training to capacitate them to assess the evidence.

In addition, experts in discrimination and GBV are included on the panel. Should there be sufficient evidence of misconduct, the matter is then referred to the relevant offices for the formal disciplinary process to be conducted.

At its core, our policy has a firm zero-tolerance approach to GBV. All advocacy and training initiatives, the complaints process, legislative frameworks and support measures reflect this.

The Transformation Office promotes institutional transformation and fosters an affirming, transformational institutional culture that promotes diversity and social inclusion through interventions focused on the constitutional principles of human dignity, equality, fairness, non-racism, non-sexism and redress.

Working and learning in a socially inclusive environment plays a significant role in the success of both staff and students. The basis of all our interactions is the Statement of Commitment to an Inclusive Institutional Culture.

The Transformation Office works collaboratively with internal and external stakeholders towards fostering this culture, which is underpinned by the Institutional Regulatory Code’s overarching Integrated Policy for the Promotion of Equality and the Prevention of and Protection Against Unfair Discrimination, and the Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Offences specifically addressing unfair gender discrimination associated with sexual harassment and sexual offences.

A safe space for all

Mandela University upholds the principles enshrined in chapter two of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996), which promotes the rights of all people who live in South Africa and affirms the democratic values of human dignity, equality and fairness.

The institution strives to create an environment where all staff and students can safely pursue their studies, work, business transactions and social interactions, free from sexual harassment and sexual offences, both of which will result in disciplinary action that carry severe penalties.

A complainant-centred approach is implemented, while the rights of all parties are protected via clear and detailed processes through the provision of appropriate support and protection mechanisms while the complaint is being investigated. Such provisions may extend beyond the period of investigation, depending on whether or not a formal process is followed.

At its heart, the Transformation Office is action-based. Policies are only worth the paper on which they are written unless they are put into practice. Our policies continue to be revised to ensure that they align with national regulations, protocols and jurisprudence while remaining relevant within the changing environment in which we operate.

Since August this year, more than 70 events were hosted by the Transformation Office and reached hundreds of students, both on and off campus.

Topics aimed at fostering greater understanding and support included positive masculinity, LGBTQI+ and violence, deafness and social inclusion, unconscious bias, GBV and bullying.

Practical courses included classes on self-defence, provision of an online self-enrolment course on being a first responder and hosting of a human rights activation series, since any form of discrimination is a human rights violation.

Staff and students who have experienced GBV while conducting their work or studies, respectively, are strongly encouraged to lodge their complaints via the online reporting page. Progress of these complaints is tracked using the Cyber Incidents and Investigations Management System, or CIIMS, software.

Complaints are also referred to the office via other avenues, including academic departments, residence managers, protection services, student health services, Emthonjeni Student Wellness, and the ombud’s office.

In this way, we can ensure that every voice is heard, through as many avenues as possible, and with as few cases as possible falling through the cracks.

Accountability via reporting

We closely monitor complaint trends via the quarterly Equality Promotion Social Inclusion Report to various governance committees, including the bi-annual report to the university council to chart progress and highlight red flags. The report includes details on equality-related complaints, and information about ongoing capacity development education, training and advocacy.

Since January this year, 95 formal complaints were lodged, of which 76% were student-on-student violations. Harassment comprised the bulk of cases (40%), followed by sexual offences (17%) and discrimination (13%). Year-on-year, the number of on-campus incidents increased from 24% to 30%, however, most incidents happened off campus.

To date, 70 cases have been referred for investigation with a total of 50 students receiving psychosocial support via the Transformation Office.

GBV survivors are also supported by Emthonjeni Student Wellness, with most of these students having experienced GBV before registering at the university.

Some complainants only seek support and elect not to have their complaint investigated due to their not being emotionally and-or psychologically ready.

Some complainants choose not to have their complaint investigated because they want to forget and move on. It is essential that the choices of the complainants are respected. We are there to guide and support.

Policy outlines

Nelson Mandela University's Policy on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Offences provides detailed steps and mechanisms for addressing such incidents.

These include, but are not limited to, the role of managers, employees and students, the role of the Sexual Harassment and Offences Committee, a sub-committee of the Engagement and Transformation Committee and, crucially, the function of Sexual Harassment Advisors (SHAs), who serve as the first line of contact for affected employees and students.

Our SHAs provide immediate trauma containment support and complaint process advice. Together with GBV peer supporters, who provide, inter alia, basic lay counselling, debriefing and basic guidance on policy-related processes, we have a solid foundation of first responders in place. Ongoing capacity-building of first responders will ensure they are appropriately skilled to reduce secondary trauma and provide the necessary support to the GBV survivor.

The policy clearly outlines the duty of care provisions, including supportive and protective measures; prohibition on retaliatory acts; handling false or malicious complaints or allegations; anonymous complaints and-or protected or confidential disclosures; the right to pursue external processes; ensuring confidentiality; the provision of education and training, and monitoring mechanisms via reporting to various governance structures.

As Mandela University amplifies the global chorus of awareness fostered through the 16 Days of Activism campaign, we know that, only through the integrated, collective, consistent and continuous efforts of every South African, will this social blight be overcome.

Dr Ruby-Ann Levendal is the director of transformation, engagement and transformation portfolio at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

This article was published in University World News.  

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057
debbie.derry@mandela.ac.za