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Combating sexual harassment in universities

The Department of Higher Education and Training has appointed a Ministerial Task Team to advise on matters relating to sexual harassment and gender-based violence (GBV) in public universities in South Africa.

This follows an open letter written by a group of academics to the Minister in March 2019 highlighting issues of Gender – Based Violence (GBV), including sexual harassment.

Among the issues raised by academics were lecturers, especially male lecturers, who asked for sexual favours from students for marks. 

According to the academics, young female academics also get harassed by senior leadership in universities in exchange for job security.

In a letter, the academics called on the Department of Higher Education and Training to ensure that steps are implemented to help prevent sexual harassment and sexual violence in university spaces.

The academics recommended the following:

  • A special investigation be conducted into the extent of sexual offences directed at both staff and students in the higher education sector;
  • A register of offenders be published on the department’s website for all higher education institutions to access and consult before posts are offered to new staff members;
  • Standardising the resources of offices dealing with sexual offences in higher education institutions, taking into account the size of each institution;
  • Blacklist those found guilty of sexual offences to prevent them from joining any institution of higher learning after their guilt is determined;
  • Establishment of a charter of ethics that would be signed by all staff and students who assume positions of leadership in higher education institutions, and
  • Instituting quarterly reports through which all vice-chancellors disclose statistics on sexual offences collected in various institutions.

In response to this, the Department of Higher Education met with a group of academics to discuss the proposals made.

The Ministerial Task Team will advise the Minister and the department on the following matters:

  • The effective introduction and implementation of the policy framework to address GBV with a specific focus on universities;
  • A possible enquiry into sexual harassment, GBV and gender-based harm in the university sector, considering work that has already been carried out;
  • Measures to ensure that sexual offenders do not escape justice and repeat offences in other institutions;
  • Appropriate levels of support to be put in place at public universities;
  • Mechanisms and processes to report on sexual offences in the sector, in line with the policy framework, with a view of improving monitoring and reporting; and
  • Other possible interventions to improve institutional responses to gender-based violence and sexual harassment.

“The task team will also be requested to identify areas of good practice in reporting and managing gender-based harm and support mechanisms that could be replicated in the sector, and identify policy weaknesses across institutions that may be contributing to failures of institutions to adequately manage sexual harassment and gender-based violence,” the Minister said.

The nine-member team includes Lisa Vetten, Dr Babalwa Magoqwana, Professor Jackie Dugard, Professor Pumla Gqola, Dr Robert Morrell, Jerome September, Professor Malehoko Tshoaedi, Corinne Knowles, and a Student Representative nominated by the South African Union of Students (SAUS). 

The task team is appointed for a period of 12 months, starting in June 2019.