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Exploring practical ways to proactively address gender based harm at Wits

- Wits University

A conversation with student leaders, activists, academics, researchers and Wits officials proposes proactive and practical ways to tackle gender-based harm.

The murder of Asithandile Zozo Lugalo, a 20-year-old Wits student who was the victim of gender based violence in August 2020, was met with anger by the Wits community and raised the ire of the nation. This followed the murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old UCT student who was raped and killed in Cape Town a year earlier, and whose death brought to the fore the urgency for all South Africans to confront the scourge of Gender-Based Harm (GBH) in society.  

These incidents prompted the Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Adam Habib and the Vice-Chancellor Designate Professor Zeblon Vilakazi to convene a conversation with student leaders, activists, academics, researchers, specialists and university officials to think through some proactive and practical ways in which the University can prevent and address gender based harm. It was facilitated by the Dean of Student Affairs, Jerome September.

“Wits has a dedicated Gender Equity Office (GEO) that adopts a victim-centred approach when dealing with matters related to gender-based harm, we have progressive policies and protocols in place, sufficient support services for students, and strong disciplinary processes – despite these structures and interventions, the rights of women are still violated,” said Professor Habib. “We need practical interventions that will help keep women and all vulnerable people safe on our campuses, and beyond.”

His words were echoed by Professor Vilakazi, who added that all forms of gender-based harm needed to be prevented. “Where are the young men?” he asked. “They need to be part of this important discussion from the outset.” These words were echoed by Basil Mugwena, the Head of Campus Housing and Residence Life, and Lucy Khofi, the outgoing SRC Gender and Transformation Officer who mentioned that there was a need to engage with students formally and informally, and in particular with some leaders in student governance structures who sometimes used their power to abuse the rights of women.   

The discussion was engaging and constructive and many difficult issues were brought to the fore.

Buhle Geleba, the All Residence Council representative suggested a review of how cases had been managed in the GEO, in order to determine exactly which processes hindered the progression of matters, and prevented justice from being served timeously. Gender activist and scholar Lisa Vetten added that space-specific strategies should be developed – for example, women living on-campus would have different experiences to those living in private accommodation in Braamfontein. She also stated that power dynamics needed to be explored in complex, multidimensional ways. Anne Lunsky, the Head of the Counselling and Careers Development Unit emphasised the need for counselling and therapy to be undertaken as part of a holistic psycho-social rehabilitation programme. These were some of the ideas put forward during the discussion.  

Several innovative and pragmatic ideas to educate, acculturate and hold perpetrators to account were tabled. These include, amongst others:

  • engaging students and staff about GBH through formal and informal conversations;
  • launching education and advocacy programmes for students in residences, which include components of drama, theatre and music;
  • enforcing punitive consequences against perpetrators of GBH;
  • developing online courses on GBH that are mandatory for staff and students who join the University;
  • developing training programmes for student leaders around the management of GBH; and
  • reporting anonymously and more regularly on the outcome of matters managed by the Gender Equity Office.

Participants, including Vetten, and Senior Lecturer in the School of Law Karmini Pillay, agreed that GBH could not only be tackled at the institutional level, and that it was necessary for Wits to play a greater role in leading the conversation, influencing policy and participating in interventions in broader society, and in collaboration with other social actors. Four Witsies are represented on the Ministerial Task Team on Sexual Harassment and Gender-Based Violence and Harm and it was agreed that Wits should further: 

  • engage with other universities to enable a systemic agenda against GBH and prevent convicted perpetrators from being employed or enrolled in the sector;
  • participate in national workshops to be held by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DoHET) on GBH;
  • work with Universities South Africa (USAf) and the DoHET to go beyond sectoral boundaries to extend programmes into secondary schools;
  • participate in a national register which identifies perpetrators who have been found guilty of GBH; and
  • conduct research and academic activities that could possibly influence policies, processes and the law around how gender based harm is managed outside of Wits.

“These suggestions will be deliberated on by the Senior Executive Team and will be implemented as appropriate,” said Habib. “However, there are some tasks that can commence immediately including the development of training programmes for new staff and students, the publication of regular reports from the GEO, and the enabling of a national community of practice via USAf.”

All participants agreed that it was important for the conversation to continue within the wider University community and that staff, students and others should be invited to share any other legal, practical ideas on how to prevent and manage GBH at Wits and beyond. Staff and students are invited to leave their comments below the video on YouTube, to hold further discussions within their respective units, departments, schools and faculties, and/or to send suggestions and recommendations to for consideration by the Senior Executive Team and the Gender Equity Office.