22 September 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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‘One Billion Rising’ – Universities must play a role

It seems that women have finally had enough. Enough of the violence, the murder, the rape, the slavery, the humiliation, the ignorance, the grotesque inequity of it all. One female in three will be raped or beaten in her lifetime. That makes one billion – and their campaign is labelled ‘One Billion Rising’.

The violence is only part of a larger picture, none of it edifying.

For example, one in three will be raped or beaten – but only if she lives long enough. The murder of girl children has reached proportions that defy belief and the aborting of female foetuses is skewing male-female ratios so badly in some communities that finding a bride itself becomes a violent business.

The trafficking and slavery of human beings, women and girls in the majority but not all, have reached a scale that should be the subject of a concerted international campaign.

There is certainly evidence to support the outrage.

Earlier this year a symposium on "Gender Inequality in Emerging Markets" was held at Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford.

Many of the speakers were authorities on the various forms of gender discrimination and inequality – and the evidence they presented was shocking, to say the least. What one would expect to be acts punishable by law seem to be accepted as part of the culture in some parts of the world.

What was also clear was that apart from the moral outrage one would expect the treatment of women to provoke, it is actually bad for business and bad for the economy for a country not to utilise the talents of all of its people.

Not educating women is also bad for the average health of families. Many development specialists have demonstrated that improving the lot of women has a dramatic impact on a whole range of indicators of upliftment.

The abuse of women also corrupts society and destroys families. And their marginalisation undermines the political system.

Role of higher education

It is worth reflecting on this sorry state of affairs and the role of higher education in changing the attitudes and beliefs that must pertain if such behaviour is condoned.

University participation rates have never been higher in the history of the world and much progress has been made in increasing access for men and women alike – and yet it seems to have made a wholly inadequate impression on how men see women and how women see themselves.

Before one claims that this might be a serious failing on the part of universities, perhaps it might be helpful if some thought is given to how the role of universities in society is perceived, and indeed what universities claim for themselves when they proclaim the position of a ‘public good’.

First and foremost universities claim to be the nurseries for tomorrow’s leaders – and history bears witness to the fact that this is so.

If they are educating leaders for a better, fairer and safer society wherever that may be, then they had better also pay specific attention to interrogating and challenging the attitudes and beliefs that sustain horrendous acts of cruelty against women and girl children.

It is not at all clear that they do.

They might produce ‘competent’ engineers, accountants, doctors, computer specialists, scientists, teachers, nurses, managers, social scientists and the like – but do they really make space in curricula for surfacing the attitudes and beliefs that maintain and foster these old customs and cultures?

The research makes it clear that the violence perpetrated against women is not confined to social class or level of education – so it would seem education is not making a significant difference.

It is also claimed that higher education is essential to development, economic and social. If the world is to become a better and safer place, then it is believed that education will be crucial in making it so.

Yet, again it is not clear that many universities focus their programmes on the problems and concerns of the communities in which they are embedded, much less the concerns and problems of the women in those communities. Some do, but they are by no means in the majority.

One further claim is that higher education plays a central role in delivering on the promise of democracy – a public good indeed. It is said that higher education is a key site of possibility and promise, a place where there is an opportunity to help turn democratic aspirations into democratic practice.

Universities, seen in a historic context, have not got a particularly distinguished history of promoting women’s rights. It is only in the past few decades that they even admitted women into their august circles.

It would seem that being sites of learning where critical thinking, logic and moral philosophising occurred, did not include pondering the rights and wrongs of discrimination against women.

One wonders how many women believe they are the beneficiaries of the equal rights that democracy purports to deliver. One wonders even if those women who do get a university education (some in strictly controlled and separated circumstances) believe that universities understand their dilemmas and act to support them.

Search the ‘One Billion Rising’ website and from the whole world of thousands and thousands of universities one will find fewer than 20 universities!

Higher education’s public face must be visible and active in the spaces provided by democratic societies. University leaders need to demonstrate their commitment by prompting debate, being visible when it is important, taking a stand where it is necessary to do so and making it difficult for the worst to flourish.

Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying that “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”.

It is time for higher education to exercise leadership in this matter and ensure that both the men and women who leave their portals have a grasp of the issues and understand their role in making the world a fairer, better and safer place for all its people.

This would be their enactment of true citizenship.

* Brenda Gourley is a chartered accountant who became South Africa’s first woman vice-chancellor and served as vice-chancellor of Britain’s Open University from 2002-09. She is currently on the board of numerous organisations and is a higher education consultant.
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