An established culture of sexual harassment

2013-03-10 10:00

In the wake of the exposé of what goes on backstage in the Wits drama department, a student gives her take on the growing trend of sexual misconduct at the institution.

The Vuvuzela article, “Professor asked students for sex”, published in September 2012 played a crucial role in foregrounding the issue of sexual harassment at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

However, as unfortunate as it may be, the article did not shed light on anything new or unheard of. The Wits community has been well-aware of certain lecturers crossing certain boundaries with students for years.

The corridor gossip had just never travelled beyond the walls of the university.

Sexual harassment is indicative of the culture of impunity firmly entrenched at Wits. There is a total lack of commitment to communication and transparency from the university’s leaders and administrators.

I find myself surrounded by frustrated staff and disempowered students and, for the record, I include myself in the latter category.

The university remained silent on the subject of sexual harassment for six months after the Vuvuzela article was published.

As a student, I was left baffled by the extent to which Wits management disregarded the concerns of its students, by sweeping sexual harassment allegations under the carpet.

As a young woman, my enthusiasm for Wits and its progressive reputation soon turned into a more cynical disillusionment.

As one of the many female students who have been subjected to sexual harassment by staff members, I am deeply disappointed in the truth that I have to fight for my voice to be heard.

There are no real avenues available to distressed students to directly hold management accountable to its actions, and this is why Wits took its sweet time to address sexual harassment on campus.

It has been made very clear to students that the university will deal with us on their terms, at their discretion and to the extent they see fit.

There has been no room made for students to engage meaningfully with management.

We are told that “action” is being taken through investigative means, yet we continue to be excluded from this process.

Why is the university not prioritising the participation of students in resolving a matter that directly pertains to us?

I would assume that it only makes sense to involve the other party in cases of sexual harassment.

Could it be a fear of the unknown?

While sexual harassment on campus can now be taken for granted as a well-known fact, Wits remains unaware of how widely and how deeply this problem extends.

The empty public statements by management on its efforts to combat sexual harassment, spammed to students’ email accounts, forms a desperate attempt to keep the floodgates shut.

Wits finds itself in a position where it cannot even begin to estimate the number of students who may come forward with further sexual harassment cases, if the opportunity to do so is provided.

Allowing the culture of sexual harassment to develop on campus for years on end has finally caught up with the university.

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