The Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET) draft policy framework to address gender-based violence (GBV) in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) is open for public comment until 3 June 2019.

The policy aims to ensure that HEIs adopt a comprehensive response to GBV that both creates awareness of this scourge and prevents incidents of violence.

Due to the rising number of reported cases of GBV in HEIs, especially in residences, UKZN adopted a GBV policy in October 2017 and a multi-stakeholder GBV committee was set up in September 2018 to monitor its implementation. A task team is responsible for addressing any delivery failures.

Commenting on the draft policy and how it will assist UKZN in implementing its own institutional policy, Chair of the Committee and lecturer in the School of Law, Ms Janine Hicks, said HEIs are obliged to provide a safe teaching, learning and living environment for staff and students. This calls for measures to prevent and respond to the unacceptably high levels of GBV.

Hicks said the UKZN policy addresses the challenges faced by students; which from the committee’s point of view are threefold.

‘Firstly, there is a critical lack of awareness on issues relating to GBV, sexual orientation and sexual harassment resulting in unacceptable levels of sexual violence, homophobic assaults and bullying of LGBTI students. Our combined policy framework envisages a range of interventions as part of a slate of prevention measures to combat this,’ said Hicks.

She said that secondly, the University is aware of numerous spaces where students feel vulnerable to GBV and harassment. ‘These range from our on- and off-campus residences, to navigating our campuses and facilities after hours, and identified facilities where incidents have been reported. The envisaged national audit will supplement our existing measures in this regard, and assist us in identifying and addressing these shortcomings.

‘Thirdly, our combined policy framework will ensure a comprehensive response to reported instances of GBV. We need to ensure that every single reported instance of harassment, violence or abuse is taken seriously; that our first response, investigation and prosecution teams are trained in how to respond appropriately to reported instances of GBV; that complainants receive immediate counselling support and assistance in opening criminal cases where appropriate; and that offenders are prosecuted and disciplined, receiving appropriate sentencing to signal in the strongest terms that UKZN will not tolerate any form of discrimination or violence,’ added Hicks.

The Committee has set up emergency numbers and structures that can be accessed by staff and students during and after office hours. These include a soon to be launched panic button which will linked to Risk Management Services (RMS) via the UKZN App. Disciplinary mechanisms have also been put in place to deal with perpetrators.

Words: Sithembile Shabangu

Photograph: Andile Ndlovu