The alleged rape of a female student at Nelson Mandela University comes as no surprise.
Female students on campuses are vulnerable as their locations are often open to the public as well. Working in labs or the library in the evenings, not to mention finding their way back to residences, have become life-threatening for many women.
Intruders have easy access to university facilities, spaces that are not easily policed or regulated. Yet there is a lot that university authorities can do. Sadly they react only once such transgressions have reached a pitch.
Universities abroad, particularly in the US, have introduced a range of policies and actions to ensure women are safe.
Computers are registered with the police and fitted with tracking devices; panic buttons are installed all over campuses; awareness campaigns are institutionalised; pamphlets and brochures are available and criminal procedures are pursued for every violation of women students.
As the former gender equity officer at the University of the Western Cape, I have learnt a lot. My job was to set up infrastructure to protect female students against sexual harassment and violence.
I marshalled resources at a very high level to make this a reality, the first being to have the Gender Equity Unit (GEU) recognised as a senate body with multi-stakeholder representation on the campus.
My job was to win over the male leadership and top management to help us fight all forms of violence against women. Initiatives of the GEU included the establishment of a gender-representative tribunal; tracking cases of violence against women and prosecuting offenders.
Our primary goal was to remove stumbling blocks that hamper the advancement of all women on the campus. On one occasion, I visited all heads of departments to win support for our cause.
In the science faculty, I was told repeatedly that female students achieved the highest grades, but were reluctant to pursue postgraduate study. Many female students said working in the labs after hours was “life-threatening”.
Walking to their residences after dark killed their desire to continue studying. These fears were compounded by other cultural factors – inter alia, that there were few role models for women in the sciences.
Our successes at the time were due, in no small measure, to the visible support of our vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellors.
Prof Kader Asmal helped formulate the gender policy, and the Women’s Commission spearheaded the policies against sexual harassment and rape; equality legislation for women; a childcare centre; the representation of women on key decision-making bodies; and access for women to research grants and leave.
Through partnerships with universities in the US and Europe, we got funding for female academics to complete their PhDs and/or publications abroad.
Our efforts to advance women included all women on campus (cleaners, administration staff, students and academics); policies covered both social and academic needs; the tribunal took crimes against women seriously.
A postgraduate women’s studies curriculum was introduced. Fighting for our rights on many levels was not easy, but it was a worthwhile fight because, in the end, we achieved a lot.