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27 November 2023 Photo KALEIDOSCOPE
Prof Francis Petersen
Prof Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Prof Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State. 

The 16 Days of Activism Against Women and Child Abuse campaign has over the years raised valuable awareness around the pervasive scourge of gender-based violence that continues to plague our country in general – and our institutions of higher learning in particular. But, as with any campaign around an issue of such importance, it is vital that awareness evolves into real action. And in the higher education sphere, there is much that universities can do to make a real difference, says Prof Francis Petersen.

South Africa’s levels of violence against the more vulnerable sectors of our society remain alarming. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently expressed grave concern over the latest crime statistics released by the South African Police Service. It revealed that more than three children and twelve women were murdered daily in South Africa over a 90-day period between October and December last year – while another 21 434 women and children suffered attempted murder or grievous bodily harm.

Such staggering levels of abuse can simply never be accepted as the norm. On our university campuses in particular, the rate of gender-based violence remains unacceptably high. As university authorities, it is essential that we never lose the impetus to combat this, and that we keep on dedicating resources, time, perspectives, skills, and insights to help bring about real change. 

Creating safe spaces 

It starts by ensuring that our campuses constitute physically safe spaces for our students – with all the necessary security measures in place to ensure a living and learning environment free from risk or fear. Here, special attention should be paid to ensuring safety at on-campus and off-campus accommodation, and while commuting to and from them. Policies around gender-based violence need to be developed and regularly reviewed, and the necessary support structures should be established and empowered – not only to provide aftercare, but also to work towards prevention. Universities should treat all incidents of gender-based violence in a serious light, consistently responding with swift and thorough investigations and appropriate disciplinary action. The ultimate aim is to create environments where all students and staff feel secure and respected, regardless of their gender and sexual orientation.

But our campuses should also be intellectually safe spaces, where students feel free to speak out about issues that concern them, and where archaic ideas around masculinity can be exposed, challenged, and contested without fear of humiliation or retribution. Platforms for discourse and discussion need to be deliberately created for this, with the university leadership setting the tone by speaking out against issues that work against a culture of social justice on our campuses.

Creating a safe, caring environment for our students includes listening to them, responding in an appropriate and timely way, and working with them towards co-creating real workable solutions. An important part of this is to include students in university governance structures, where they can actively influence policy and decision making around issues that affect them.

Changing harmful gender stereotypes

As centres for innovation, research, dissemination, and application of knowledge, it is essential that universities use their society-focused role to speak out against harmful gender stereotypes and outdated perceptions around gender roles. In the process, we play an important part in influencing a new generation of leaders and helping to reshape societal norms and expectations.  Our curricula should include a comprehensive focus on principles of gender parity, incorporating GBV awareness and prevention – which is why curriculum renewal remains so important. And why curricular and co-curricular programmes should all be underscored by a value system of equity, care, and social justice. 

As microcosms of what an ideal society should look like, it is of course equally essential that this equity is reflected in universities’ own human resources policies, staff complements, and hiring procedures. 

Mental health support

Universities are ideally placed to provide professional mental health support to victims of abuse – many of whom would otherwise not have easy access to it.  This support extends to cultivating assertiveness and resilience in our students. Through individual therapy, as well as the various self-awareness programmes offered on our campuses, we empower potential victims to realise their own worth. It also equips them with knowledge on how to avoid an abusive situation, and how to act when they find themselves in it. 

Combating economic abuse 

Economic abuse is a manifestation of gender-based violence that is too often overlooked. This silent and insidious form of abuse traps women in a cycle of dependency and can prevent them from pursuing employment prospects and attaining personal growth. Education remains one of the most potent weapons in the fight against economic abuse. But it needs to go even further than that. As hubs of research and critical thinking, universities should use their resources towards understanding the dynamics of economic abuse – its prevalence, consequences, and the most effective interventions to address it. As part of our society-focused role, we should also use our knowledge and skills to provide counselling, legal aid, and economic advice. 

Harnessing technology to fight abuse

The digital sphere has become a critical battleground in the fight against gender-based violence. Not only does it provide access to online platforms where survivors of gender-based violence can speak out, share experiences, and create a support network – it also enables counsellors and caregivers to reach victims who would otherwise not be able to make use of their services.

On top of that, online platforms offer a safe and discreet way for survivors to report incidents and access legal and other aid. Part of our teaching and learning as well as our community engagement functions as universities is to educate our staff and students and also the wider community about these possibilities, equipping them with digital competencies, and helping to facilitate access to online resources.

Driving a collaborative approach

I believe it is abundantly clear that institutions of higher learning have an important and meaningful role to play in the fight against gender-based violence on a variety of fronts. It is a role we should embrace, develop, and refine with growing determination. What is equally clear is that it is a fight we cannot win on our own. A collaborative approach by higher education, the private and business sector, and government is needed – to reinforce anti-abuse discourse from various angles and to escalate it into real, sustainable, and effective action.

Creating a culture of responsibility 

This much remains clear: The responsibility of preventing gender-based violence lies not only with the potential victims, but with every member of society. Universities should establish clear and mandatory reporting protocols for staff and students who witness or are aware of instances of abuse. But even more important – create a culture of responsibility, where information sharing, support, and assistance are a natural outflow of a caring, cohesive institution. 

Establishing such united university communities, based on equity, inclusivity, and social justice, is the only way we can hope to eradicate gender-based violence from our campuses – and in turn, from our society as a whole. 

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