The death of a female student … the loss of an ear during a fight with her boyfriend … These are some of the more horrific manifestations of sexual harassment at tertiary education institutions in Zimbabwe where sexual harassment ranks as one of the biggest challenges for women students – over and above unequal representation in decision-making processes, shortages of accommodation and exorbitant tuition fees.
According to a 2015 study by women’s rights organisation the Female Student Network Trust, a startling 94% of female students reported they had encountered sexual harassment, mostly from male lecturers and other non-academic staff.
The study further revealed that only four out of the 21 tertiary education institutions covered in the baseline study, had sexual harassment policies.
The organisation says most cases of sexual harassment are underreported because sometimes the students don’t know where to report such cases. Where mechanisms for reporting exist, most institutions are headed by men, which scares the students off.
Fear of victimisation also deters students from reporting cases, it says.
To address the issue, the Female Student Network Trust has developed sexual policy guidelines to assist universities to develop and implement sexual harassment policies.
Trust Director Evernice Munando says a sexual harassment policy can educate students about what constitutes sexual harassment.
“We are demanding that all tertiary education institutions immediately set up proper reporting procedures for sexual harassment. These should give students the assurance that they will not be victimised should they make reports involving their superiors,” said Munando. “We also want government to compel all higher education institutions to come up with sexual harassment policies as a matter of urgency and within a stipulated time frame, and this call must be accompanied by strong commitment, and enforcement mechanisms.”
Munando’s organisation believes that criminalising sexual harassment could help to curb the vice and wants government to enact laws that protect students from sexual abuse. Currently, no law criminalises sexual harassment in a university setting, although labour law prohibits the practice in the workplace.
Munando says strong disciplinary measures, including dismissal, and withdrawal of teaching certificates against perpetrators of sexual harassment would buttress zero tolerance towards sexual harassment.
Government is also being called upon to adopt all international conventions and treaties covering sexual harassment.
Late last month, the trust met with officials at the University of Zimbabwe, the country’s oldest university and one of the few institutions that uses a student charter to address cases of sexual harassment.
But Munando says the charter is inadequate.
“We’ve noted that the University of Zimbabwe does not have a substantive sexual harassment policy that adequately and comprehensively addresses the vice of sexual harassment, despite having made an undertaking to do so in the student charter. It [the student charter] is a good starting point to develop a functional policy.”
The university’s Pro Vice-chancellor, Professor Pedzisai Mashiri, said instruments and policies alone were not adequate to deal with the scourge of sexual harassment.
“The most important thing is to inculcate a new culture, which encourages 'Ubuntu' among our people, and espouses restraint, and good relations with others.”
Chairperson of the Parliament of Zimbabwe’s Portfolio Committee on Women's Affairs, Gender, and Community Development, Beatrice Nyamupinga said perpetrators of sexual harassment should be named and shamed.
Acknowledging that a lack of sexual harassment policies at higher education institutions was a cause for concern, government has signalled a major policy shift.
The Deputy Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Godfrey Gandawa said on 24 April that government was crafting a new law that would compel universities and colleges to, among other punitive measures, withdraw teaching certificates of lecturers who sexually abuse students.
Calls for a lasting solution to the sexual harassment scourge come hot on the heels of shocking revelations by government last month that youths, especially students from colleges and universities, have the highest incidence of HIV and STIs – overshadowing groups such as sex workers, prisoners and long-distance truck drivers known to suffer high infection rates.
Trust spokesperson Caroline Mutimbanyoka said while there was no evidence to show the nexus between sexual harassment, and the high prevalence of HIV and STIs in higher tertiary education institutions, rampant cases of sexual harassment could be a contributing factor.
Out of desperation to secure fees and accommodation, many female students cohabit with older men in return for sexual favours. Women students are also exploited by their lecturers in order to receive high marks or pass exams.
“Most of the students are very sexually active and suffer from peer pressure. When they are desperate for fees or accommodation, some of them end up in relationships of convenience with older men including their lecturers. And in many such relationships they cannot negotiate safe sex,” said Mutimbanyoka.
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