Another campus adopts initiative that supports GBV survivors

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a global public health concern. Evidence shows that women and girls are at a higher risk of experiencing GBV than men. The latest statistics from the World Health Organization show that 26% of ever-partnered women aged 15 and older, and 6% of women aged 15 and older, have experienced intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence (NPSV), respectively, in their lifetime. ‘Ever-partnered women’ refers to women who have been married or in a romantic relationship.

In South Africa, the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) reported that 26% of ever-partnered women over 18 had experienced physical, sexual or emotional intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

A more recent study by the South African Medical Research Council looking at the prevalence of GBV within higher education institutions (HEIs), conducted between September 2018 and March 2019, found that 20% of female students had experienced sexual violence in the past year.

In their findings, the authors reported that, in addition to childhood sexual abuse, “gender inequitable relationship dynamics, mental ill-health and food insecurity are related and amenable vulnerability factors associated with female students’ sexual violence experiences.”

The high incidence of GBV is worrying, given the far-reaching consequences it has. Consistent global evidence has shown that survivors of GBV are at a higher risk of experiencing poor mental health, have higher odds of misusing substances and they experience social marginalisation. Moreover, there is a risk of losing wages for people who have experienced GBV because of missing work.

What happens to survivors and their families?

In HEIs, GBV survivors experience significant trauma which, if left untreated, could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

University students also face the additional stress of keeping up with academic workload and student life. Students who have experienced GBV may miss classes, be unable to concentrate in class or miss their exams, all which may lead to poor performance, or dropping out.

GBV survivors may also self-isolate as they try to resolve the traumatic experience, thus missing out on the social life at the university. This inability to achieve academic and socialisation goals may exacerbate the poor mental health status of the student survivors.

Thus, we have seen students who do not receive psychosocial support – following a GBV experience – misuse substances, such as alcohol and other drugs, as a coping mechanism.

Furthermore, when not dealt with, all these issues, among others, may leave a student in a state of helplessness and hopelessness, which may lead to suicidal ideation – or worse, mortality.

The impact of GBV extends to the survivor’s family. Specifically, the family members remain at a risk of experiencing traumatic stress due to hearing about the traumatic event.

If the family member is unable to resolve their own reactions to the event, they may experience feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, anger and frustration, all of which may negatively affect their relationship with the survivor.

Over and above, the family may be the only support system the survivor has, and they (the family) may experience significant emotional distress if they are uncertain about how to help, which may put additional strain on their relationships.

This is especially true in the face of the broad-ranging difficulties survivors face in interpersonal, and intrapersonal, adjustment. Thus, when thinking of ways to support GBV survivors, it is very important that we recognise the psychological impact GBV experiences may have on the family.

Alumni-in-Action initiative

The Alumni-in-Action (A-i-A) initiative, which was launched in 2021 at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to provide eight sessions of counselling support to GBV survivors, over and above the support the university provides, is golden. It has now been launched at Nelson Mandela University.

A-i-A was co-founded by Zellah Fuphe, a UCT alumnus, and Sanda Nyoka, a current UCT student, after witnessing the impact of the rape and murder of a UCT student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, in 2019.

“I believe in the power of education and the positive impact it has on society. Empowering tertiary students who, otherwise, may not be able to access services after trauma, may hinder the completion of their studies. Helping these students is an important part of shaping a progressive society,” Fuphe said in a statement released at the Nelson Mandela University launch of A-i-A on 8 March.

Survivors of GBV have often reported that psychological services may at times be financially draining. This leads to their dropping out of counselling. Moreover, there are, sometimes, long waiting lists in the public health clinics, leading to the survivors having to wait for months to receive counselling services.

This is a significant risk, because crisis counselling (counselling immediately after the traumatic event) is crucial in the healing trajectory. The A-i-A initiative will provide a much-needed pertinent solution.

This initiative is yet another demonstration of HEI’s commitment to remaining resolute in contending with the scourge of GBV. It follows the recent appointment of the Nelson Mandela University’s Vice-chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa, and Unisa’s Vice-chancellor, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, by South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande, to lead the fight against gender-based violence and femicide within the higher education sector in South Africa.

With the support of donors, the A-i-A should be set up at other universities, as part of a broader initiative.

There are two important next steps for the HEIs in the broader initiative: the first will be to extend psychosocial services to the survivors’ support system. The nature of social reactions, and support, GBV survivors receive from others can have a profound impact on their health and well-being.

Thus, the role of the support system in their healing process remains paramount. It is, therefore, imperative that the support we provide to GBV survivors is holistic. This will, in part, mean providing counselling services to the GBV survivors’ support system.

The second task will be to include treatment of complex traumas in this initiative.

Admittedly, this is a bold endeavour, but it is a pivotal one. Our students are exposed to multiple overlapping forms of trauma, within the context of the most unequal socio-economic society in the world – and one that is characterised by historic trauma – and the impact of that on the daily lived experiences of citizens is momentous.

Exposure to trauma is both a consequence and driver of GBV. Therefore, our fight against GBV should appreciate that the lived struggles of our students are very real and complex; and this should be addressed.

Preventing GBV occurrence remains the main goal. HEIs remain purposefully in pursuit of achieving this aim, which will require concerted action from various stakeholders.


Firstly, current research in the field of GBV prevention proposes co-development of GBV prevention programmes with the community. Co-development refers to a process whereby researchers and the community (intervention beneficiaries) work together, equitably, to design interventions using their different sources of knowledge. Another way of seeing it is that the researchers bring scientific knowledge to the process, but the community has the contextual knowledge.

In the co-development processes, we have a greater chance of creating a platform where we, as the community, can engage in transformative communication.

Here, we can participate in discussions and critically think, and reflect, about issues that are important to us. Most importantly, through this process of reflection, people come to understand their behaviour, and possibly identify ways in which they can change it.

However, co-development processes are expensive endeavours. Thus, secondly, there is a need for funding. We call on the government, industries, and the broader society to invest in the designing, implementation, and evaluation of GBV prevention programmes, in addition to supporting critical initiatives such as A-i-A.

Ultimately, a reduction and eventual elimination of GBV will not only create a safe environment for future generations, but it will also save us the cost of responding to GBV.

Dr Jane Ndungu is a research associate at the Transformation Office at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa. This is a commentary.