Calls for practical steps to end campus sexual harassment
James Wilford, executive director of SAYWHAT, a non-governmental organisation that helps young people and students lead healthy lives and enjoy their full reproductive and sexual rights, said the collaboration was an initial step to move away from talk that has been the preoccupation of dialogues on sexual harassment during the past few years.
“We have been having discussions on sexual harassment, and elimination of gender-based violence from institutions of higher learning, now is the time to find some solutions,” he told the forum held at the University of Zimbabwe on 24 May.
Absence of clear legal frameworks
Wilford said a key stumbling block to progress has been the absence of clear legal frameworks within tertiary institutions to eliminate sexual harassment, to punish perpetrators and to deter others who may want to commit the same crime.
Sexual harassment has prevailed despite the existence of ordinances and sexual harassment policies in some universities. The ordinances make many assumptions on who can be a victim and perpetrator of sexual harassment, gaps considered a hindrance to the elimination of the scourge.
Dialogue about sexual harassment in institutions of higher learning has amplified over the past few years but no tangible actions to end the scourge have materialised. This comes on the back of a 2017 study by the Female Students Network Trust, revealing that 74% of female students in tertiary institutions have been subjected to sexual harassment by male staffers at campuses throughout the country.
Too afraid to report incidents
Patricia Machawira, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization regional HIV and health education advisor, said many institutions of higher learning do not have policies or programmes in place to deal with sexual harassment and, even when policies do exist, students may still be too afraid to report instances of harassment by lecturers.
Bishow Parajuli, the UN resident coordinator in Zimbabwe, said the high incidence of sexual harassment in tertiary institutions is a cause of great concern, needing urgent support and interventions.
To end the scourge, Parajuli called for policies and laws that show zero tolerance of sexual harassment and abuse among students, the implementation of sexual harassment policies, and consistent communication of the policies among management, staff and students.
He said fast-track procedures were needed to address complaints and a 24-hour helpline was needed for victims.
“Strong disciplinary measures, including dismissal, must be taken against perpetrators regardless of position or level of influence on campus, and the empowerment of victims and advocates to share their stories and become agents of change as prevention is always better than cure,” he said.
Dean of Student Affairs at Bindura University, Dr RK Makado, said ending sexual harassment in universities required going beyond policies and ordinances.
He called for the training of staff and innovations such as engagement of parents, the monitoring of off-campus students, and the counselling and training of landlords who house students.
Other measures discussed included addressing the key drivers of vulnerability such as the lack of accommodation and poverty. Zimbabwe has an expanding tertiary level education system, which has seen the high enrolment of students in colleges and universities. Due to difficult economic circumstances, many students suffer from poverty and are unable to pay their fees or living expenses in the absence of grants and affordable loans.
Wilford said the greatest takeaway from the meeting was the commitment by funding partners and deans of students from universities, who are key stakeholders in policy formulation concerning student welfare, to ensure that universities realign their policies in order to eliminate sexual harassment.