Awareness initiative needed to tackle sexual violence at Rhodes University

TW: discussion of sexual assault

Sexual assault remains a pervasive problem in society and Rhodes University is no exception. Some Rhodes students have expressed concern about the University’s lack of communication on the matter, and others feel an awareness initiative to prevent sexual assault is needed.

Survey indicates some students are aware of procedures dealing with sexual offences

In early 2015, Rhodes University society Gender Action Project* (GAP) surveyed students about various gender-related topics. A total of 124 students, all of whom had been enrolled at Rhodes for at least one year, responded.

Over 60 % of the survey respondents said they did know what to do if they experienced sexual assault at Rhodes.  Of the 62 students who responded positively, ten said they knew the procedures due to their own initiative or because they had been informed of them during student leadership training.

One respondent said, “I know, but only because I had to specifically find out, which was intimidating”.

Another respondent said, “I know that there is support available but I don’t know what steps to take. I think it would be helpful for some sort of pamphlet or easily accessible information to be spread, so that everyone knows about how to help people, not only those who are actively seeking support”.

Another response said, “The procedure isn’t known because we aren’t informed on it –  not as a house comm member during training and not as a new student entering Rhodes. We shouldn’t have to ask for these talks to be done”.

One of the respondents added, “Instances of sexual assault, abuse and rape are hushed up by the university and we as students never hear about the developments and disciplinary action taken. I think ordinary students need to be more involved and informed by the university”.

An incomplete picture: the available statistics on sexual assault at Rhodes

Rhodes University categorizes disciplinary offences into two levels: lower and higher discipline. The difference between these levels is how they are investigated. Disciplinary cases which fall under Lower Discipline, for instance, causing noise disturbances in residence, are overseen by Hall Wardens.  Cases which fall under Higher Discipline, for instance, theft and copyright infringement, are investigated by the University Prosecutors.

Offences such as sexual assault and sexual harassment are classified as Higher Disciplinary offences and thus, are investigated by the University Prosecutors. Currently, the only publically available records of sexual assault complaints at Rhodes University are those recorded by the university Prosecutors in the Higher Disciplinary case reports, which are released at the end of each semester.

According to the Higher Disciplinary case reports from the period 2011 to 2014, a total of 185 Higher Disciplinary cases were reported to and investigated by University Prosecutors.

total cases

Of these 185 cases, there were seven cases of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment recorded and investigated by the prosecutors.

Sexual assaults

Of these seven reported cases, one resulted in an investigation where an accused was found guilty. The accused was excluded from Rhodes University for one year.

timeline.png

Given the low number of ‘successful’ convictions for sexual offences during 2011-2014, depicted in the Higher Disciplinary reports, Director of Student Affairs, Dr Colleen Vassiliou was asked to comment on whether these statistics reflected the scope of sexual violence at Rhodes.

She said, “The 7 cases the prosecutors dealt with would be 7 cases where students/staff possibly requested level 4 disciplinary intervention.”

Dr Vassiliou cautioned that students and staff have four options to choose in dealing with sexual assault cases, and that disciplinary action is only one of those four.

Reporting Harassment2.png

In light of findings on sexual offenses in the Higher Disciplinary reports, the two university Prosecutors were asked to comment on the following:

  • What challenges they face when trying to prosecute cases of alleged sexual assault or harassment
  • what kind of evidence is needed to secure a conviction in a sexual assault or harassment case
  • why they would decline to prosecute in a case of sexual assault or sexual harassment
  • why sexual assault and sexual harassment could result in a mediation between the parties involved.

They declined to comment.

The difficulty with using statistics to understand the scope of sexual violence

Statistics released by the South African Police Service indicate that there were 62 649 sexual offences reported in South Africa in 2013- 2014. However, anti-rape advocacy groups often point out that police statistics are not completely accurate because many sexual offences go unreported.

According to Rape Crisis Cape Town, an organisation which supports victims of sexual violence, research has suggested that “if all rapes were reported, the figures could be as high as… 500 000” nationwide.

Organiser of the 2015 Silent Protest against Sexual Violence, Dr Lindsay Kelland also expressed concern about the reliability of statistics when it comes to the reporting of incidents of rape and sexual violence.

Kelland said due to the fear of being pitied, exposed or shunned as a result of the stigma around sexual violence, many victims choose not to report assaults to the police.

“I feel as though our in-house statistics [at Rhodes] would be even less reliable given a widespread lack of understanding on the part of Rhodes staff and students about how they go about reporting such incidents, who they report them to and the ramifications of doing so.

Over the years, these procedures have changed significantly. These changes have, I imagine, not only confused students but have also left the wardens and sub-wardens a little confused about what to do if a student comes to them with a problem.

On top of this, if one searches for this information on the Rhodes University website, one finds old policies and conflicting instructions,” Kelland said, suggesting that the university’s policies on sexual offences needed to be made clearer to students.

A new, “liberating” procedure

Currently, sexual offences are to be reported to the manager of Student Wellness, Nomangwana Mrwetyana. Mrwetyana became the manager of student wellness/harassment officer at the beginning of 2015, after the Division of Student Affairs went under review in 2014. Before this, harassment could be reported through different reporting officers within the university.

She said, “Initially complainants used to go to the Director of Student Affair’s office when the word was not yet out there.  I have seen a significant increase in the number of reports during term 2 [of 2015].

My role is to explain the various options and the complainant makes an informed decision after weighing the pros and cons of each option…The new procedure is quite liberating and gives the complainants the agency and autonomy to be able to still make choices about their lives as one is not forced into taking a particular direction.

This is obviously done in a caring manner and they are not forced to make hasty decisions.”

The scope of sexual assault at Rhodes remains unclear

Asked if the statistics on sexual assault or harassment cases recorded in the higher disciplinary reports presented an accurate idea of sexual violence at Rhodes, Mrwetyana declined to comment. The Registrar, Dr Stephen Fourie, also declined to comment.

Mrwetyana added, “I am however aware that some complainants prefer to only seek medical help, the Health Care Centre keeps such records when they are approached for medical intervention.”

Mrwetyana also keeps a confidential record of assaults reported to her. However, she said, “The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) code of conduct prohibits me from publishing such a record.”

Mrwetyana said that, in the instance that the alleged perpetrator is not a student or staff member of Rhodes University, the complainant can be referred to the police. In such situations, Mrwetyana added, the complainant would be referred to the Rhodes Legal Clinic for legal assistance.

She also said that if a student is accused of sexual assault or harassment, by two or more students, the matter would, with the complainants’ permission, be referred to the University prosecutors for investigation.

Shifting the focus from prosecution to prevention 

Although noting disappointment in the low levels of successful prosecutions reflected in the Higher Disciplinary reports, (2015) vice chairperson of Gender Action Project*, Sian Ferguson, said that the university administration needs to focus on being transparent about how they handle sexual offence cases.

She added, “I think an awareness initiative should be prioritised at the moment. Very few people truly understand the definition of sexual assault, and for that reason, it should be compulsory for all first-year students to attend a workshop on assault & the law during orientation.”

“There is no point in spending more resources or energy on punishing perpetrators when potential perpetrators aren’t made aware that their actions are wrong, and when victims don’t know how to report,” Ferguson said.

Rhodes University’s Policy on Eradicating Unfair Discrimination and Harassment is currently under review.

*Disclaimer: The author of this work is the 2015 chairperson of Gender Action Project society at Rhodes University.

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