Sexual violation of students on campuses needs urgent attention

Sexual violation on campus is a matter of great national concern and the apparent lack of regulation at colleges underlines the urgent need for legislation to deal with it, says the writer.
Sexual violation on campus is a matter of great national concern and the apparent lack of regulation at colleges underlines the urgent need for legislation to deal with it, says the writer.
Image: Eugene Coetzee

Sowetan reported last week that various universities said that no less than 48 rape incidents on campus were reported last year.

The shocking statistics were revealed in parliament by higher education and training minister Naledi Pandor in response to a question from the EFF.

According to the report, the University of Cape Town (UCT) recorded the highest number of rape cases with nine, followed by Walter Sisulu University (WSU) with seven, Tshwane University of Technology with six, Nelson Mandela University with five and the University of Johannesburg with four.

While these figures are shocking, perhaps what disturbs me most is that no statistics were revealed on higher learning institutions such as TVET (formerly FET) colleges and private colleges, where the majority of previously disadvantaged students pursue their higher education.

Even the EFF, which identifies itself as the vanguard of the previously marginalised and the poor, failed to question the minister about the prevalence of sexual violence at technical and vocational colleges.

It is concerning that little thought has been spared for students' safety on college campuses. Research is also practically nonexistent on the prevalence of sexual violence in colleges. Whether such institutions have policies in place regarding sexual harassment or sexual violence is largely unknown; there is a lack of substantive research on the prevalence and effect of sexual harassment in colleges countrywide.

This is despite the fact that the number of students enrolled in higher-education institutions is expected to increase to about 2.5million in TVET colleges and a million in community colleges by 2030. According to the department of higher education and training white paper (2013), its highest priority is to strengthen and expand the public TVET colleges and turn them into attractive institutions of choice for school-leavers.

The government's priority to strengthen and expand public TVET colleges is laudable, but at the same time also alarming. It is alarming considering that no official data can be found on the prevalence of sexual harassment at these institutions

It is shocking that sexual violation on campus remains unrecognised as a matter of great national concern and the apparent lack of regulation at colleges further underlines the urgent need for legislation to deal with it.

What we do know is that universities have thus far dealt with this phenomenon through self-regulated policies even though research proves this is inefficient. Research shows that even where such policies do exist, sexual violence continues anyway.

Furthermore, research not only rejects self-regulated policies adopted by universities aimed at managing sexual violation on campus, but also rejects the Code of Good Practice on the Handling of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in SA's labour laws as it lacks the competence to provide appropriate procedures to deal with sexual violation on campus.

But the manner in which institutions respond to complaints is not the only problem. According to various research, the need for improved stability through legislative means has become increasingly important because, as enrolments increase, students are bound to face increased risk. The problem, in other words, will become more pronounced over time.

It is furthermore interesting that SA's response to sexual violation in higher learning is in direct contrast to that in the United States for example, which provides a national response to sexual violation.

As early as 1972, the US adopted Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act to address sexual violation in all institutions of learning, enabling the US government to regulate the prevalence of sexual offences in all institutions at a national level. Therefore, unabated sexual violence on the campuses is a failure of the national government to act responsibly.

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