Women’s NGO fights sexual harassment at universities

Katswe Sistahood, a women-focused non-governmental organisation, has set up a campus programme aimed at addressing the myriad challenges facing women students in Zimbabwean higher and tertiary education institutions, including widespread sexual harassment and discrimination.

The Feminist on Campus programme was established at the Catholic University of Zimbabwe last week, in the wake of a demonstration by women students at the university against sexual harassment by lecturers, among other gender-based issues.

In rolling out the programme, Katswe Sistahood has partnered with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), which is one of the programme’s funders, and the Pepeta Africa regional network, an implementing partner.

Prevalence of harassment

Women students in higher and tertiary education face oppression on campus which includes sexual harassment and discrimination based on their gender. 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.

Otilia Chinyani, a programme officer with Katswe Sistahood, told University World News that the programme seeks to give female university and college students a platform to speak out and to find solutions to their problems.

Currently there are no platforms for female students to have an open conversation concerning challenges they would be encountering at many universities and colleges.

“As far back as five years ago, we started engaging female students at universities around issues of their reproductive and sexual health rights and the different challenges they faced. Feminist on Campus builds on this. It is a starting point on which to build a feminist movement at tertiary institutions,” Chinyani said.

Chinyani added that through Feminist on Campus, her organisation hoped that it would be nurturing a movement of young women who are articulate and have a critical understanding of the different sexual health issues and concerns that affect them.

“The Feminist on Campus is about reaching out to young women in tertiary institutions after realising they are facing … violence … but then there are limited platforms for them to engage,” she said.

“We think that by building on their knowledge and their understanding they can actually challenge the different kinds of oppression they face as female students.”

National network

Katswe Sistahood plans to have Feminist on Campus at every tertiary institution in Zimbabwe, to move the feminist agenda forward and to open similar chapters at the University of Zimbabwe, Great Zimbabwe University, National University of Science and Technology, Midlands State University and Women’s University in Africa in Harare.

A student, Clara Chinoruma, said the programme was a worthy event that gave young women a platform to raise issues about things that affect them on campus.

“We are excited as young people to have these conversations and to see where we are going as young people. We are excited to see what the future holds for us as Feminist on Campus and we hope the network will continue growing,” she said.

As a key funder of the initiative, OSISA is keen on using the creative arts as a tool for expression, telling women students’ stories for healing and promoting the arts as a way to make a living.

In a meeting with women in May this year, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa promised to ensure that every higher and tertiary institution has a fully implemented sexual harassment policy.