Despite serving as a custodian for approximately 17 000 students, the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Bloemfontein campus has never implemented a sexual harassment policy before.

Dionne van Reenen, staff member from the Institute of Reconcilliation and Social justice, confirmed that the policy had been completed during October 2016 by herself and Zane Thela from the Gender and Equity office. They are currently awaiting approval from various university bodies before it may be passed.

Although the university is a public space, the need for a sexual harassment policy only made it onto the mandates of the Student Representative Councils (SRC) of the last three years. Former SRC President, Richard Chemaly, provided some clarity on this.“Not to say that gender issues [are] not pressing, but for a long time particularly when I was President, the university’s main issue was racism and integrating residences. Only very recently have people begun to pay attention to gender issues,” explained Chemaly.

Van Reenen believes that the reason why the UFS has taken so long to begin addressing the need for a sexual harassment policy is because the university assumed that prescribing to the constitution would be enough in terms of ensuring the safety of its stakeholders. “This is a public space and one has to answer for the behaviours of the members of this space” said Van Reenen.

The policy will act as a means of holding people accountable for their actions as it is explicit in its definition of sexual harassment. She further alluded to instances of sexual harassment between staff members and students that were difficult to resolve because of the ambiguities surrounding the definitions of sexual harassment, violence and misconduct.

“We have had cases before where people have been accused of staff misconduct but I mean the things that they have done to students are so much more than just simple staff misconduct, it’s blatant harassment” stated van Reenen.  She believes that the policy’s educational value will allow university members to address damaging social norms before they lead to instances of sexual harassment or rape. Van Reenen went on to say that “Prior to getting into the rape, there are things embedded into our culture that we allow men to do. We can’t always make a big ruckus after someone has been raped, we need to look and address the root causes of rape.”

A campus based organisation focused on female empowerment, Embrace-a-sister, has been instrumental in shedding light onto issues of gender equity. Founder of the organisation, Phumla Mgobhozi, recalls an incident with a student who approached the organisation for help after she had been raped. Mgobhozi says that she found it difficult to assist the student without in-house counsellors.

Mgobhozi said, “Without a policy, the university does not have to take too much responsibility in providing us with counsellors to assist the students, because you’ll find that the student has to go to Kovsie Health and wait two weeks before they are helped.”

Written by Tammy Fray