by Tam’sanqa Mhepoh | @ndebeleshona | News Analysis
22 years after preliminary research categorically stated that policies and grievance procedures for those who are sexually harassed be designed, survey data by the Female Students Network in 2016 showed that only 5 out of more than 20 tertiary institutions had sexual harassment policies.
Analysts and commentators said that this lack of sexual harassment policies and poor implementation in the paltry sum of all tertiary institutions where they exist is directly linked to the widespread victimisation of students.
“If it’s not written, it’s not there – If there is no policy, that means there is no framework for prevention,” said Jephiter Tsamwi, an Information and Advocacy Officer at Students and Youth Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT).
Furthermore, the Information Advocacy expert reiterated that policy usually comes with programs for knowledge and awareness on sexual harassment. Hence, a lack of policy / ineffective implementation translates into a lack of / poor cognition of such kind of abuse, procedures for reporting and strategies for disciplinary action against perpetrators and mitigation for victims.
Another commentator, Costa Nkomo, the National University of Science and Technology Students Union Legal Representative, said, “the absence of policy to deal with sexual harassment makes colleges limitless with regard to sexual behaviour and widens sexual assault in the constituency.”
A Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights practitioner, Unoziba Tenga, who works with a Bulawayo based non-governmental organisation whose mission is to promote sexual health and wellness in young people explained that “Victims do not speak out because of feelings of helplessness heightened by ignorance of the procedures to reporting abuse, which should otherwise be clearly communicated in policy,”
“Sexual harassment policies, where they exist, are not being communicated to students from day one,” added Tenga.
Data from a 2017 report presented at the Bulawayo Polytechnic 3rd Annual Research Conference early this month showed that 70 percent of sexual harassment cases largely go unreported because they happen behind closed doors and in most cases, victims do not know where or how to seek redress.
Mrs Eugenia Takavarasha, a lecturer at Hillside Teachers College who presented the findings as reported by the Chronicle, said, “Students blame colleges for lack of proper management of such matters with only 30 percent of them agreeing to report to administration although they rarely yield solutions. Only major cases such as attempted rape and rape were otherwise reported.”
Takavarasha added that the 70 percent of students indicated that they do not report sexual harassment because cases are usually referred to the police who subject the victim to inhuman interrogation.
Nevertheless, “Sexual harassment in colleges can be curbed more effectively if the Ministry of Higher Education in consultation with civil society formulated a standardised policy on the issue,” Tsamwi said. “This would ensure uniformity in disciplinary action and psycho-social support for offenders and victims respectively.”
However, an official in the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education at Mhlahlandlela government complex, Mr Gonye, defended government citing that tertiary institutions are semi-autonomous and “therefore each one is responsible for their own students and issues that affect them.”
Meanwhile, analysts and commentators remained resolute that the parent ministry of these institutions and its stakeholders in the field should take full responsibility for their perpetual oblivion on the extent of sexual harassment in the system.
Nkomo worried that the widespread lack of sexual of sexual harassment policies, and the mediocre ones enacted in a few tertiary institutions showed that university authorities did not truly care about the welfare of their students.
“It is very sad for an academic institution to operate without a single policy that speaks directly to the protection of student rights, sexual rights being the apex of all of them,” Nkomo said.
Tenga suggested that sexual harassment in Zimbabwe’s tertiary institutions is not viewed as an important issue, hence the little progress in policy formulation and implementation.
Tsamwi observed that,“The lack of sexual harassment policies for decades shows that student affairs arms of tertiary institutions are not putting enough energy into this issue.”
Furthermore, Tsamwi added that it was “sad” that numerous studies and reports on sexual harassment in the country, from as far back as Dr Fred Zindi’s research in 1994 “seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.”
“The ministry of higher education is to blame, all of civil society working with tertiary institutions are to blame because they have failed to flag the challenge on the lack of sexual harassment policies in Zimbabwe’s citadels of knowledge,” said Tenga.