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GBV cannot be addressed without addressing gender inequality

Written by Professor Shahana Rasool, Professor: Department of Social Work, UJ

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a worldwide problem, so much so that it is currently classified as the second pandemic after COVID-19. In his recent televised address to the nation, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke against GBV which he referred to as “A war waged against women and children” since reports of GBV have increased during the country’s national lockdown period. Universities, are a microcosm of society, and therefore similarly affected by GBV.


Although the majority of staff and students are currently off campus, GBV remains a serious concern for the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Many members of the University community have experienced different forms of GBV on and off campus. GBV affects people physically, emotionally, economically, spiritually and in every area of their lives. It impacts on the Victims/Survivors ability to engage fully in campus life, and perform optimally in their academic and professional lives. Therefore, it is critical that responsive support services and safe spaces are made available to support those who are affected either directly or indirectly, in and outside the University community. To address the problem, GBV cases require rapid responses to enable victims/survivors to reclaim their lives. However, measures to deal with GBV need to move beyond reactive and curative responses, to prevention and addressing the social-cultural norms that enable gender inequality.

It is commendable that last year, UJ Senate appointed a task team to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to address GBV. Key UJ stakeholders were actively involved in this plan, which considers: (a) Intervention and responses, (b) Community education, awareness, marketing and prevention; (C) Teaching, learning and research, and (e) Monitoring and evaluation.

Some of the aspects included in the plan include raising awareness; and identifying hot spots where GBV occurs (in order to assess risk and implement prevention programmes); research and having a fully specialized unit within the University. It also proposes the establishment of a one-stop specialised centre with a multi-disciplinary team (medical, legal, mental health, etc.) trained in dealing with GBV, which replicates a similar model to the Thuthuzela Care Centres. A first step towards achieving this is the recently established Gender Equity Unit, which is located in the Transformation Division. The Unit has been mandated to respond to all GBV related cases and implements projects that address gender equality and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Intersex, Queer (LGBTIQ+) issues. UJ has a variety of other facilities where victims can report GBV cases (see some in the list below). However, these interventions require a victim to go to someone or somewhere to find help. Additionally, it is important to consider some kind of rapid response system, where a team could respond to a distress call and go to the victim immediately in times of crises.

There is currently a panic button system available, that can be used by anyone who is feeling unsafe or at risk, to call for help. The University advises staff and students to download the Namola app ( which is a free service, which can be used to call for help. Once the person feeling unsafe presses the panic button embedded in the Namola app, it alerts security or police to respond. However, a rapid response team that includes a social worker, a mediator or a mental health worker, as part of the response team would increase the impact of the service, since trust of the police and security services remains a concern for some. Moreover, clearer reporting procedures, approaches to case management, referral, prosecution, suspension and trial are needed. There is also still a need for more safe spaces and people throughout the university, where victims can obtain support and help in reporting GBV.

GBV must be considered within the ambit of broader initiatives to address both descriptive and substantive gender inequality within the University environment. This is critical, since GBV is an extreme consequence of gender inequality. As a university, we need to not only look at gender representativity, in the form of equal numbers of men and women at various levels of the university, in positions of leadership, in enrolment, staff retention and recruitment, etc. We also need to consider more challenging issues such as equal pay, provide support for the uneven burden of care that women carry with regards to child and family care responsibilities, the HR and other policies that perpetuate gender inequality, within the university environment.

The University also needs more long term GBV prevention measures. This requires a re-look at the socio-cultural norms, practices and systems that perpetuate GBV, which are embedded in gender inequality. The socio-cultural norms that perpetuate GBV, rape included, such as victim blaming, trivializing and normalising GBV need to be addressed. Often people complicit with GBV will look to the victim/survivors sexual history, dress, alcohol use, location of rape (e.g. club or bar) and other aspects surrounding the incident, to blame the victim. Sometimes comments are made to suggest that the victim/survivor did not say ‘no’, or she was in the relationship so the presumption of consent is assumed, or she has had various previous relationships, so she asked for it or deserves it. These attitudes absolve the perpetrator from taking responsibility for their unacceptable behaviour, and suggest that the victim/survivor could have somehow averted the GBV by behaving within prescribed gender norms and stereotypes. We need to shift the discourse from what a survivor/victim should do or NOT do, to a focus on what the perpetrators should not do.

We need to promote a ZERO tolerance for GBV and rape, and denounce a rape and GBV culture. Students or staff who are caught harassing, raping or engaging in any form of GBV, need to be immediately suspended pending the outcome of the case. This is critical since victims often leave their studies or the University for fear of facing the perpetrator on campus and in the hearing process. Historically, the argument has been that suspending ‘alleged’ perpetrators has a negative impact on the perpetrators’ studies, especially if the perpetrator is innocent. However, this argument does not consider the impact of GBV on victims’/survivors who has to have constant contact with the perpetrator. This is particularly complex in cases where the charges cannot be proven in a hearing or court – for example: if there is no ‘evidence’ because the rape occurred in a room with no other witnesses, and/or the survivor cleaned themselves after the ordeal and/or the evidence was not collected properly. In many cases, victims are re-traumatised and re-victimised because of circumstances that require them to confront the perpetrator on a daily basis, but also by systemic failure in responding to and prosecuting GBV.

There is a serious need to explore innovative approaches that provide different support mechanisms to the complainant and alternative options for dealing with the ‘alleged’ perpetrator until the case is closed. Some possibilities to consider if both the perpetrator and victim are on the same campus together include: changing the class slots of the perpetrator if there are two streams for a course; support through virtual learning; changing of supervisors if the alleged perpetrator is a staff member. For the victim, it may be helpful to have access to a type of protection order during the investigation and trial processes. The protection order needs to specify substantive implications for the perpetrator and/or his family/friends, should the order be violated. These kinds of interventions require a flexible policy that is responsive to the unique circumstances of each case. It also requires a specialised team that understands the complexities of GBV. This team needs to have the requisite power to implement appropriate actions to protect the victim, while still considering learning options for the ‘alleged’ perpetrator.

Moreover, in the current context people are frequently engaging online, and this has led to newer and more intensified forms of GBV and cyber harassment. Clearer policies and procedures for identifying perpetrators and convicting cyber harassers need to be developed and implemented. Additionally, the increased militarisation of society and isolation of people with COVID-19, is an additional concern to consider in addressing GBV holistically.

Not enough is being done to detect and punish perpetrators in both the university environment and the broader justice systems. While it is true that victims often retract reports, possibly give up during the process, and in many cases do not report GBV, it is partly due to the failure to charge and convict perpetrators. Not feeling safe to report an incident. Wondering if they will be believed. Watching friends go through difficult processes with no success. Long drawn out hearings with no post-disclosure protection. In addition, often flawed policies and laws are propping perpetrators and simultaneously unresponsive to victims. Poor treatment of the victim/survivor and mis-management of evidence by first responders are some of the many challenges in dealing with GBV. There needs to be an increase in gender sensitivity in the structures and processes for responding to GBV, so that they can support and validate victims rather than re-traumatise them.

To end GBV, everyone in society needs to unpack, unlearn the existing socio-cultural attitudes that perpetuate gender inequality, and deconstruct policies, systems and processes that are inherently patriarchal. It is important to recognise that gender inequality and GBV are two sides of the same coin; if gender inequality is not dealt with more broadly, it is unlikely that efforts to address GBV would succeed. As Mona Eltahawy asks: “Where is the vaccine against patriarchy that socialises men into believing they are entitled to our bodies? Where is the vaccine against the patriarchal family structure that tell it that it owns our bodies, as women, as children, as queer people? Where do we go when home is where the hurt is?”

Below are contact details to obtain help for GBV and other related matters:

UJ support services for GBV:

Transformation Division: I 011 559 7789

Gender Equity Unit:

(PsyCaD): Crisis Line: 0820541137

Campus Health: APK 011 559 3837 / APB 011 559 1238 / DFC 011 559 6544 / SWC 011 559 5571

Institutional Office for HIV & AIDS (IOHA): Cell no: 0721263185

National and local support services

GBV Command Centre: 0800 428 428 * Please call *120*7867# * SMS help 31531 Lenasia South Thuthuzela Care Centre: 011 213 9722 * Nthabiseng Thuthuzela Care Centre: CHC Hospital: 011 933 1206 * Tembisa Hospital Masakhane Thuthuzela Care Centre: 011 923 2180



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