Academia unite to drive gender equality agenda

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Highlights from the African Universities Gender Equality Forum on 12 August

Gender based violence (GBV) is not dependent on our culture, our background, our religion, the color of our skin, our education, how much money we have, the language we speak, where we live, or even the country we come from. Women have been abused for centuries. It is about power inequalities. Like COVID, gender-based violence knows no boundaries and is spread by human behaviour.

Sadly, there is no vaccine to stop or eradicate gender-based violence. Only we as the human race can. It is time for women to take back their power, for both their own sake and their children’s future.

This was the opening statement from SVAI CEO and founder, Tiekie Barnard, which set the scene for an engaging discussion among academia at the African Universities Gender Equality Forum on 12 August.

The purpose of the forum, which was hosted by the Shared Value Africa Initiative and the University of Johannesburg, was to unite the academia, civil society, government, private sector and citizens in general, in the fight against gender be violence. It brought together an estimated 300 delegates from 15 countries across the African continent.

The session featured keynote speakers Lindi Dlamini, CEO of the GBVF Response Fund 1 and Elizabeth Dartnall, Executive Director of the Sexual Violence Research Initiative, with representation from Strathmore University Business School, the University of Namibia, Lagos Business School and the Universities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, CPUT and Nelson Mandela in South Africa on the panel. Academia unite to drive gender equality agenda

Statistics shared during the webinar, once more illustrated the dire straits that women everywhere find themselves in, the world over. “According to the United Nations, 137 women are killed each day by a member of their family or a partner and since the outbreak of COVID-19, reports from those on the front line indicate a sharp increase in all types of violence against women and girls,” observed Dr Mumbi Wachira, Lecturer at Strathmore University Business School who moderated the session.

She also observed that: “As academics, we feel it is not enough to simply observe and critique gender-based violence and inequality, but to be the force for change in prevention and awareness. We also recognise our essential role in pushing for equality among all in our own spheres of learning and beyond. ”

A very valid question was posed by keynote speaker, Lindi Dlamini, CEO of the GBVF-Response Fund 1. “After fighting the battle for so many years, why do we not have sufficient male voices talking about how enough is enough in the space?”

She put a challenge out to men across Africa to stand up, speak up and make their voices heard. “Gender-based violence and inequality are everyone’s problem. It may largely affects women and children, but women are the pillars of homes and of society. They are raising the next generation. We deserve a society that treats women better. After all, a society that is harmful to women is harmful unto itself.”

She stressed that systemic inequality – inequality in workplaces and workspaces, in particular the informal economy – remains by far the biggest contributor to making women vulnerable to gender based violence. “There is a responsibility on industry captains and leaders are like to take on the mantle of activism around gender equality and the elimination of workplace and societal conditions that keep women oppressed.”

Elizabeth Dartnall, Executive Director of the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) shared insights on what works to prevent GBV and the importance of using research to inform policy and practice. She also pointed out that the current investment in GBV prevention does not match the size of the problem, with even in less investment being made on research into the issue.

“This is a real problem for us in the field of knowledge production, especially given the importance of research to inform policy and practice and the importance of evidence-based prevention programmes to improve the lives of women and children,” said Ms Dartnall. “A shared research agenda will be able to help identify evidence gaps and highlight priority areas for research which, in turn, can guide research expenditure and ensure that precious research resources are spent effectively while also driving the field forward as a whole.”

Discussions and insights shared by the keynotes and panelists underscored the fact that increasing gender equality will reduce gender based violence. It also brought home the message that we all need to stand up for gender equality… in our homes, in our families and in the workplace, starting with equal opportunities, equal pay, and a place at the decision making table.

Speakers and panelists also highlighted a variety of ways that collaborative action can be taken on University campuses and within organisations, by building on what works and guided by existing international frameworks.

A case in point is the unifying framework used by the SVRI, which was developed by multiple agencies and contains a set of action oriented steps that enables the design, implemention, monitoring and evaluation of interventions.  There is also the Advanced Human Rights Course at the University of Pretoria (UP) that explores the foundations of a human rights based approach to challenging gender inequality. which was noted by Dr Olebogeng Selebi, Senior Lecturer at UP.

Prof Corné Davis, Associate Professor of Strategic Communication at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), felt strongly about the role and responsibility of academics to bring the topic of gender-based violence into mainstream social journals. “It needs to be written into corporate governance, into strategic planning, public relations and social responsibility.”

She is currently spearheading private sector-based research into GBV and gender equality, specifically how it fits into the larger ESG reporting domain within companies. The research is done in partnership with the Shared Value Africa Initiative.

Ms Immaculate Mogotsi, Head of the Gender Training and Research Programme at the University of Namibia, touched on how academia can and should spearhead gender equality not just within the University spaces, but also in the various roles that they play.

“As academics, we have to cascade commitments made by our governments and leaders – the Beijing Declaration, the Sustainable Development Goals, Agenda 2063, the Maputo Protocol on Women’s Rights, and more – into reality in the work we do at our respective universities and through the curriculums that we are setting up.”

Another example of key initiatives underway at tertiary institutions, is the train-the-trainer programme at CPUT, which is an integrated part of the university’s multi-phased response to GBV and a capacity building effort done in partnership with the Western Cape NPA, according to Nonkosi Tyolwana, Director, Centre for Diversity, Inclusivity and Social Change at CPUT.

All in all, the Gender Equality Forum was a powerful engagement led by the women of Africa; one that serves to motivate and inspire all to reach out to each other, to collaborate and raise our voices.

It also serves to illustrate that gender-based violence is a complex challenge with multiple risk factors and many players involved, and that no one organisation or sector can solve this problem on their own. A collaboratively research and learning approach will also enable partners to challenge and subvert traditional knowledge hierarchies and create opportunities to do things in new and different ways.

However, while academia is an important partner in finding a solution, it is not the only one. Collaboration between multiple sectors and across borders will be vital, if we are to successfully reduce and prevent GBV.

If you have not been able to participate in this forum, the session has been made available online on YouTube: