Addressing sexual harassment as institutional failure

In Africa, enrolling in higher education institutions is an aspiration of many young people and their families and represents an investment in their own socio-economic progress. This is why university graduation ceremonies are celebrated with great pomp – the ceremonies anticipate significant long-term benefits. Higher education institutions are the power engine of Africa’s progress.

Additionally, issues of gender equality and diversity have gained momentum in the 21st century as it has become widely acknowledged that balanced economic and social progress is only possible with these tenets.

Most governments in Africa have adopted and ratified policies such as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the African Union Gender Policy (2009), which mandate them to observe and practise gender equity and empower women in higher education institutions.

Vulnerability of women in African universities

In Egypt, 99% of women experience sexual harassment. In South Africa, three-quarters of women experience some form of abuse or sexual violence. In 2014 and 2015, South African police recorded 53,000 rape cases annually.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Rwanda, many women report sexual violence by intimate partners. In Uganda, sexual harassment and gender-based violence against women, including abductions and murder, make the headlines on a weekly basis.

Globally, 35% of women experience physical or sexual violence of all kinds. Women suffer derogatory comments and unsolicited sexual advances.

Students enrolling in higher education institutions in Africa have different backgrounds: some are freshly graduated from high school; some are mature-age entrants. More than 90% of the younger students are from poor families. Unlike higher education institutions, secondary schools and most homes are restrictive and heavily regulated when it comes to relations between the sexes.

Traditionally, girls and boys are socialised differently, which has a negative impact outside of these regulated spaces.

Young female students entering higher education institutions are vulnerable, innocent, unexposed and naïve, eager to explore their newly discovered freedom, sometimes ending up with unplanned pregnancies and dropping out altogether. The rampant, sexual manipulation of women, girls, and sometimes boys, happens within and outside the institutions.

Most universities in Africa have gender policies and policies against sexual harassment, but several factors contribute to sexual harassment and gender-based violence. University hostels, where disadvantaged female and male students stay, are often cheap and unregulated, serving as the first location for sexual harassment because they attract sexual predators.

Other contributing factors include financial need, the imperative to get good grades to open doors to a scarce labour market, graduate unemployment and peer pressure.

Monitoring systems are often in place, but are weakened by unprofessional administration. A strong patriarchal tradition, often aggravated by sheer misogynistic behaviour, undermines female staff and students systematically, contributing to denying them advancement and ruining their academic careers.

Some perpetrators of gender-based violence are persons of responsibility and influence on the students, such as faculty, course coordinators and examination officers.

Finally, substance abuse contributes to a culture that is unconducive to respect between the sexes.

Strategic advancement of gender equity and equality

Strategic advancement towards gender equality and a violence-free society should include sensitising and empowering men and boys on gender issues.

Dedicated professional counsellors, psychologists, deans of students and wardens should work in an organised and structured manner with student peers, executive management and faculties to offer counselling, sensitisation and open discussions on what triggers sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

Coordinating both academic and extracurricular activities such as nature clubs, sports and games gives opportunities for feedback and keeps young people busy and healthy.

Student counselling on social issues, responsible residential life at universities, prevention against diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, combined with a strict institutional culture and gender policy are practical ways to build inclusive, respectful and diverse academic communities.

Consistently communicating, advising and sensitising students is crucial. Reversing a nefarious culture requires bold institutional leadership dealing decisively with cases of sexual misconduct, coupled with a rigorous selection of professional staff.

Sexual harassment and gender-based violence in higher education are signs of institutional failure. Indeed, victims may see their academic careers stunted or destroyed. The vicious cycle of poverty and moral decadence is perpetuated. Endemic gender-based violence and sexual harassment undermine the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals in the African context.

Christine Dranzoa is vice-chancellor at Muni University, Arua, and president of the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Uganda. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.