Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault, sexual violence

‘His behaviour is too close to “normal male behaviour”.’ This is what the University of Cape Town (UCT) court said to a student to explain why she didn’t have a case after she reported being aggressively stalked and harassed on campus.

‘You see, I keep telling you girls to lock your doors.’ This is what a residence facilities officer told a student after she reported a house committee member letting himself into her room and sexually assaulting her.

These comments, shared on the UCT Survivors blog, are not flukes. It’s part of the daily experience of thousands of students across the country. And it has to stop.

Universities are closed institutions where people from all different backgrounds gather to live, work, socialise and study, making them microcosms of broader society. Within such settings it’s extremely difficult to counter what’s considered normal and, unfortunately, rape culture is able to be qualified as a ‘culture’ because of how normalised and entrenched it is – particularly in our country, where 42 596 rapes were reported during 2015/16 (to say nothing of under-reporting).

But what is rape culture? Victim blaming forms a large part of it, but it’s more complex than that. Dela Gwala, the head of UCT Survivors (a student organisation that creates a space for conversation and activism around sexual violence at UCT), says: ‘Rape culture includes disbelieving survivors of sexual violence, casual sexism, and how we view street harassment, catcalling or any sort of sexual harassment as normal or a good way to court womxn. It also involves trivialising or mocking sexual violence, such as rape jokes.’

Of course, not all societies propagate extreme levels of sexual violence, but not all societies are as patriarchal and rooted in ideas about manhood as South Africa. We live in a country where 19-year-old Sinoxolo Mafevuka was raped and strangled in a communal toilet in Khayelitsha. Where we have a conviction rate of only 4-8% for reported rapes. Where a former ANC youth league branch leader is convicted of beating his girlfriend to death with a sjambok and a broomstick and an artist on trial for beating, kicking and stomping a woman to death is still showing his work in Cape Town.  This is not normal. And it trickles down to our universities, where students are confronted with a unique set of circumstances that make them even more vulnerable to abuse: the power structure between students and lecturers, and living in residences.

In June 2016, members of the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSA) claimed that men in some University of Pretoria (UP) residences are rewarded for promiscuity and humiliated for fidelity, while the womxn of the residences are incessantly violated. The university responded by asking students to report ‘any incidents which threaten or violate the dignity and safety’ of students. But does that help? What are universities doing to support victims, and sanction perpetrators? Rape survivor and head of the UCT Rainbow Society, Malachi Buliro, claims that alleged sexual assault perpetrators at his residence faced no scrutiny from the university, and were not even transferred to another residence. A resultant ‘sense of hopelessness’ keeps students from reporting experiences of assault, says Dela.

Statistics of sexual assault at South African universities are unreliable, says Dr Birgit Schreiber, the chair of the Stellenbosch University’s Task Team on Rape Culture, because ‘numbering the incidences is a reflection of gross underreporting.’ But students around the country are taking action. A wave of protests – and a national conversation – was kicked off in April 2016 by an anonymous Facebook posting of the so-called #RUReferenceList, a list of 11 male students’ names (followed by the academic ‘et al’, meaning ‘and others’) who were all accused of rape or sexual assault at Rhodes University. Students around the country responded by hosting anti-rape protests, silent protests, mass meetings, disruptions and visual demonstrations. Lecturers are also adding their voices: ‘What’s happening now is greater visibility coming from students of issues of sexual violence,’ says UCT lecturer Dr Alexia Smit. ‘It needs to be followed by institutional action.’

The momentum does appear to be paying off, with a number of universities putting initiatives and programmes in place with the intention of having positive long-term effects. Dr Corné Davis, senior lecturer and sexual- and gender-based violence activist at the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Strategic Communication, says the university has launched a number of campaigns against gender-based violence, including the Kwanele Enuf Zero Tolerance campaign (which is also active at Nelson Mandela Municipality University and the University of Venda); and the first Eliminate Domestic Violence Youth Council. The University of Stellenbosch has also set up a number of initiatives, says Birgit, including setting up a task team to review aspects within the university that might inadvertently underpin rape culture, as well as an Equality Unit, ‘which is busy with seeking mediatory and reconciliatory ways to address harassment and discrimination, over and above the punitive and disciplinary approaches.’ At the University of Pretoria, professor Tinyiko Maluleke is closely involved in the recently initiated sexual assault and harassment campaign #speakUp, in order to ‘equip staff and students to prevent and deal with rape, sexual assault and harassment, including any incidents motivated by homophobia on all campuses.’

While it does seem that most initiatives undertaken by universities do not run in collaboration with other universities, Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, director of Higher Education and Training HIV/Aids Programme (HEAIDS), aims to ensure that no universities will be left behind in the fight against gender-based violence. ‘HEAIDS has gathered evidence and reviewed roles, responsibilities, policies and services that should either prevent gender-based violence or help the survivor of the criminal act after the violence has happened,’ he says. ‘In the coming months, HEAIDS and the Department of Higher Education and Training will expand the dialogue into many more universities and colleges to ensure that gender-based violence is top of the institutions’ agenda into next year.’

There is still a long way to go to eliminate rape culture and gender-based violence on South African campuses, but 2016 was the year that students ‘have taken us further down the road to ending rape culture than anything attempted in the last 20 years,’ says Rakgadi Mohlahlane of the Stop Gender Based Violence National Strategic Plan. Let’s continue the fight. If we don’t take an active role in combatting rape culture, we may as well consider ourselves the ‘et al’ at the bottom of the RUReferenceList.

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