Sexual harassment plagues academia

At a recent Dreaming Feminist Futures conference, hosted by the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town, women spoke out about abuse within higher learning institutions.

The abuse includes intimidation and harassment by males who are in positions of authority, as well as sexual violence in the workplace.

The learned women who, by virtue of their chosen careers, could be classified as middle class or elite are distinguished in their respective fields of expertise. They are part of the country’s sophisticated spaces of seeking the truth, generating knowledge and sharing it.

On the face of it, a lay person who pays little attention to issues of gender-based abuse would be forgiven for doubting that such high-profile women would be the subject of abuse. Sadly, abuse knows neither class nor race. The perpetrators and the victims are in every corner of our society.

Academia, an integral part of our society, suffers from this scourge too. Women in academia are increasingly anxious. Stories of harassment abound. And there is a reality that some institutions are seen as hostile to women.

Under such circumstances, it is important for women who suffer abuse to garner the courage to speak out about harassment, notwithstanding the vilification that is almost certainly guaranteed to come their way. Victims are routinely punished for exposing their intimidators.

Masculinity that uses power and influence as an advantage to suppress the voice of women knows no boundaries in the hallowed halls of academia. There is therefore a need for human agency to confront the institution-specific contexts that allow the objectification of, especially black female “bodies”.

It cannot be right that being a woman necessarily imposes the inevitability that you will be suppressed, intimidated, violated and humiliated in the work place. It shouldn’t be regarded as normal that women constantly have to negotiate their spaces with patriarchy.

In policy and practice, institutions must create platforms that protect the dignity of the women who suffer and report abuse. It might sound like it’s an obvious thing to do especially in light of the progressive labour legislation and the Constitution that we brag about in South Africa.

But the existence of legislation, as well as policies at institutions of higher learning, does not guarantee safe and happy spaces for women. Indeed, it is typical of many institutions to refer to policies, procedures and processes when revelations of abuse become a subject of screaming headlines. It is clearly not enough to have policies.

There have to be deliberate and practical endeavours to change institutional cultures based on the cries – silent and loud – of women. There has to be an attempt to hear out even those who suffer in silence because they have lost confidence in the “system”.

In some instances, exposure of harassment has led to positive developments. Wits University is one example. It pioneered a policy that deals with what is termed Gender-Based Harm (GBH). This is a progressive step because it takes into account a whole range of harmful acts that are motivated by the gender.

The Wits policy includes sexism, unfair discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation; sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape; and abuse of power and conflict of interest based on sexual/romantic relationships. The policy was developed after Wits hogged headlines over so-called “sex-pest” scandals on its campus.

However, notwithstanding the progressive steps such as those taken by Wits University, there is still more that needs to be done to transform institutional cultures fundamentally to allow open disclosure of the ills that afflict our institutions.

Established patriarchal norms favour guaranteeing institutional reputation and ensuring that certain matters are deemed “personal”, instead of focusing on the needs of victims. Sadly, many women tend to fall for such traps, unaware that they are perpetuating abuse and discrimination by men.

Institutional reputation, guaranteeing the privacy of individuals and exposing the rot of patriarchy are all equally important. It should not be either or. In fact, institutional reputation would be enhanced if perpetrators knew their deeds would be exposed. It could serve as a deterrent and, in the end, help enhance institutional reputation. Brushing things under the carpet provides a perverse incentive for perpetrators to thrive – and inevitably harm the institution’s integrity.

The concern is that the men use power to abuse and to discipline women who refuse to adhere to their “personal demands” that are cunningly intermingled with institutional demands. The act of abusing a woman and deriving pleasure out of it is often done under the guise of innocence or claims of unintended harm.

Victims of abuse are ridiculed and face the threat of losing their jobs or even marriage. Under such circumstances, victims would be entitled to question whether or not our Constitution, labour laws and leadership of institutions are on the side of the victims.

- Moagi is a lecturer in the department of political sciences at the University of SA. She teaches Afrikan Feminism at the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute.

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