Wits' sexual harassment policy 'vague'

2013-09-04 14:46
Wits Great Hall (File, Sapa)

Wits Great Hall (File, Sapa)

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Johannesburg - A key finding of a formal inquiry report into sexual harassment at the University of the Witwatersrand is that the policy is not clearly defined, the university said on Wednesday.

Director of the Centre of Applied Legal Studies, Professor Bonita Meyersfeld, said the unpredictable approach to dealing with harassment created an unclear environment for people who wanted to come forward.

"The university's current sexual harassment policy is vague... It is abundantly clear that the majority of staff and students are not aware of the university's sexual harassment policy," the report said.

"Some are aware that there is a policy but do not know the content thereof, or where it may be accessed."

The report stated that this was one of the reasons people who experienced sexual harassment did not come forward.

"In addition, when they are reported, they are not taken further as those receiving the complaints do not know how to deal with the complaint."

Meyersfeld said the situation was not unique to Wits alone.

In most instances too many role players were involved in individual cases.

The university's legal office only dealt with matters of sexual harassment or violence between students not between staff and students.

Other cases were handled by the employment relations office.

"The legal office assists and works alongside the employment relations office on incidents of sexual harassment between a staff member and a student," the report stated.

"The legal office may call other members of staff to assist with sexual harassment cases and disciplinary proceedings where necessary. The legal office may also brief outside counsel when necessary."

Let down

The inquiry revealed that students and staff members who had experienced sexual harassment on the university's campuses felt let down by the university.

"The complainant is often not provided with follow-up information timeously (or sometimes at all) regarding the status and progress of the investigation. The result is that complainants indicate that they feel abandoned and that their case disappeared into a 'black hole'," the report stated.

Staff members were often overloaded with responsibility and inadequately resourced to address sexual harassment cases.

"The effect is defensiveness and a perception of covering up. It is not a result of negative intentions."

Part of the report stated that staff did not have support to handle sexual harassment complaints.

It said that a number of staff members had had to take special sick leave due to their emotional and mental fatigue.

"A number have also suffered severe illnesses as a result of the stress of handling these issues."

The report said the university's current sexual harassment policy stipulated that a complainant could approach "anyone" but that the policy had a silencing effect on staff.

"Staff members have reported that in instances where students have approached them to report and seek guidance, it has afterwards been implied by the university that they 'incited students to come forward'. This has a silencing effect on all members of staff," the report stated.

Addressing the matter

Even among those involved, the difficulty in addressing the matter was that there was not a unanimous understanding of what sexual harassment was, Meyersfeld said.

Meyersfeld was part of a team of five, including three lawyers from Norton Rose Fulbright SA, who drafted the report in August.

The inquiry started in February.

In April, the university appointed the firm to probe sexual harassment claims following an article in the Sunday Times newspaper which claimed that a lecturer in the university's drama department had harassed a number of his students.

Four staff members were investigated.

"It had been an exhaustive investigation," Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib said.

In July, the university fired two staff members for sexual harassment after disciplinary hearings, which were chaired by Habib.

"The third case will be determined soon and the fourth is yet to begin," Habib said.

Read more on:    university of witwatersrand  |  adam habib  |  johannesburg

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