Makerere upgrades sexual harassment policy amid concerns

A revised policy against sexual harassment aimed at more effectively curbing offensive sexual advances has been approved by the council of Makerere University amid rising concerns around the issue on Ugandan campuses.

The move follows a university investigation led by legal academic Professor Sylvia Tamale which found that some lecturers demand that students present their homework in person at awkward hours in private places, while others lure students to their offices to discuss academic performance and then demand sex in exchange for marks.

In February, local television station NBS TV exposed allegations that a senior lecturer in the department of social work and social administration at Makerere had solicited sex from a student.

The Tamale Committee presented its findings in June and recommended an overhaul of the university’s existing sexual harassment policy. Individual Ugandan universities are responsible for their own sexual harassment policies.

Makerere University Vice-chancellor Professor Barnabas Nawangwe told a local newspaper last week that the revised policy, approved by the university council earlier this month, required lecturers and all staff to declare any relationship with their students.

While the policy does not prohibit intimate relationships between students and university employees since the Ugandan age of consent is 18 years, it does discourage such relationships as they could lead to conflicts of interest.

Open door policy

Makerere’s revised policy also demands a literal “open door” approach whereby lecturers will leave their office doors open while consulting with students. They will have to consult students on university premises and inform their department heads prior to engaging the students.

The policy further states that what women wear is not a valid defence for sexual harassment. During investigations by the Tamale Committee, some male staff said female students were walking around campus with exposed thighs and chests and were tempting them into sexual acts.

The policy gives the vice-chancellor authority to form an ad hoc committee of 100 members to investigate sexual harassment cases and requires people who have received reports of sexual harassment to take action immediately or face sanctions. In addition, alleged perpetrators will be punished with caution, strong warning, suspension and dismissal.

The revisions follow recommendations by the Tamale Committee which said that while the onus for lodging a formal complaint rests with the victim, anonymous complaints should not be ignored and should be thoroughly investigated. Additionally, victims should be given full support for counselling and medical care.

The committee found that there was little awareness of the rights afforded to students and staff by the earlier 2006 university policy against sexual harassment which led to underreporting sexual harassment incidents.

Studies suggest that worldwide, one in three women will be physically or sexually abused in her lifetime. According to the 2011 Ugandan Demographic and Health Survey (DHS), 56% of Ugandan women experience physical violence, 27% experience sexual violence – and of those, 55% are under the age of 19. In addition, 51% of women have been abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Culture of silence broken

Jane Mpagi, the director for gender and community development in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, said sexual harassment cases go beyond the university. However, the culture of silence appears now to have been broken, she said.

Mpagi said the organisation receives many reports of sexual harassment, not because the phenomenon has escalated but because the issue is now more widely acknowledged in the public domain.

Speaking during the Activism Against Gender-Based Violence week held at Makerere last week, Deborah Malac, US ambassador to Uganda, said: “Here on campus, everyone has a role to play – whether it’s speaking out against sex for marks and intimate partner violence, making sure the anti-sexual harassment policy is enforced, or getting involved in the anti-sexual harassment committee.”

“I urge you all to take whatever steps you can to make your campus a safe space for everyone and for you to carry those values back with you to your homes and communities,” said Malac.

Male targets

Even though more female students are sexually harassed than men because of power inequalities and socio-economic status, there are cases in which male university staff members are subjected to offensive sexual advances from women.

While he was lecturer and acting deputy director of academic affairs in charge of examinations at Kampala International University, Okodan Akwap, said he learnt from his students that women were just as capable of soliciting favours for sex.

Some investigations into sexual harassment at higher education institutions have shown that female students devise plans to lure lecturers who are “easy to con with sex”, he said.

“We need to tackle this problem at a policy level. The National Council for Higher Education should develop broad policy guidelines, which all universities and other tertiary institutions must use to come up with individual sexual relations policies,” wrote Akwap, who is now a dean of the faculty of social sciences and management studies at Kumi University, a private university in Uganda.