Female students ‘too scared’ to report sexual harassment
“I didn’t know how to report the case and I was too scared to share my story with anyone for fear of being suspended or expelled from the university,” she told University World News through her tears.
Mercy is among a number of female students failed by the lack of sexual harassment policies as well as inadequate reporting systems and support structures at Kenyan universities.
A 2016 study on sexual harassment among university students at Kenya’s University of Eldoret found that more than 50% of students had encountered sexual harassment and there were no policies to address the issue.
Not only are female students susceptible, like Mercy, to predatory academic staff, but they also fall prey to security guards and fellow students.
According to news reports, in October this year, a security guard at Moi University was accused of raping a first-year student.
And at the University of Nairobi in October, officers from the General Service Unit were accused of sexually assaulting female students when police invaded the university following student protests.
Failure to follow up
Mary Ojwang, chairperson of the Women Students' Welfare Association of the University of Nairobi, an organisation that champions women's rights and well-being at the university, told University World News that there have been cases that students have reported through the association, but no action was taken by the university administration and security officers.
“When we receive reports on these cases, we report them first to the university security office for action. But instead of acting and taking the disciplinary measures as required, all they do is to summon and warn the accused person,” Ojwang said.
“This is the biggest challenge we have because we end up now reporting to the police and seeking assistance outside the university.”
Following reports of the security officers’ assault on female students at the university, she said no student was ready to come out and testify about being assaulted because they fear victimisation by the university.
“There are a few female students who have narrated how they were assaulted by the security officers, but they say they are not ready to testify for action to be taken,” Ojwang said.
This year eight cases have been forwarded to the police for investigation and three people have been arrested for sexually assaulting students, she said. Most of the cases the association receives concern allegations against the university’s male students.
Josephine Mong’are, chairperson of the Federation of Women Lawyers or FIDA, a women’s rights organisation in Kenya, said her organisation is working with the female students’ leaders to investigate the recent cases reported against the security officers at the University of Nairobi.
“We are in talks with the students to find out more details on the assault and how we can help them,” she told University World News, adding that once they have enough evidence, FIDA will ask the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Inspector General of the Police to ensure immediate action is taken against the perpetrators.
Mong’are said rape is a criminal offence and action needs to be taken.
“Once we are notified of the cases, we pick them up, assist the raped student to get medical tests and if the case is not reported, [we aid them to] report to the police for investigations and prosecution thereafter,” Mong’are told NewsDeeply.
“University administrations in the country should put in place mechanisms to ensure that such incidents are not repeated and to ensure the safety and security of female students under their care.”
FIDA works with all the universities’ women students’ organisations in the country to ensure the well-being of female students in the institutions.
While universities have been slow to address the issue of sexual harassment systemically, there are signs of progress.
Dr Florence Nyamu, director of the Centre for Gender Equity and Empowerment at Kenyatta University, told University World News that Kenyatta University is in the process of developing a policy and a system to address sexual harassment and a system to handle the complaints and cases of sexual harassment.
“The aim is to give a clear definition of sexual harassment so that the students, teaching staff and social workers know the consequences of sexual harassment cases and the clear channel for reporting these cases,” she said.
The mechanisms will handle sexual assault cases and provide for students to seek help in confidence.
It will also enable the institution to conduct assessments on gender-based violence and sexual harassment on all Kenyatta University campuses.
“Sexual assaults on female students in the country are high because the institutions do not have proper reporting systems,” Maurice Oduor, a lecturer at Moi University’s School of Law, told University World News.
“If there are proper reporting channels for students at the universities to report cases of sexual assaults, then most people will be afraid to commit this offence and students would not be afraid of coming out to report.
“This is a problem all over the world but the cases are minimal in the other countries, like in the West, because they have support systems that work,” he said.
Another entrenched problem is the power of political affiliation.
Elizabeth Okumu, a programme officer at the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health, an organisation that works with the women leaders in universities, said most universities harbour “goons” who commit sexual offences, but because they have political affiliations it is difficult for even the university security officers or the police to take action when a matter is reported since they do not know with whom they are dealing and to whom they are affiliated politically.
However, a reporting policy would give some guidance on what should be done in the event that a student is sexually assaulted, she said.