African universities take a stand against gender-based violence …not only in saying, but also in doing!

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If you educate people about gender and GBV, you can realise gender equality and empower women.

African universities have an all-important role to play in tackling gender equality, eliminating gender gaps, reducing gender-based violence and empowering women. Universities do this through their teachings and learnings, through research and innovation, and through community engagements and public outreach programmes.

This vital contribution by academia was unpacked at the second iteration of the African University Gender Equality Forum, hosted by the Shared Value Africa Initiative (SVAI) and the #ITSNOTOK movement. Jackson Akor from the African Leadership University and Andre Roets from STADIO Higher Education moderated the virtual session.

In setting the scene for a robust discussion, Tiekie Barnard, CEO and founder of the SVAI, quoted results from a March 2022 UNESCO report on Gender Equality[i], which measures how Global Universities are performing. She noted that while encouraging that female students outnumbered their male counterparts, the higher representation of women in the student population sadly does not translate into more women in academic leadership, and particularly in decision-making positions. In fact, less than two-fifths of senior academia (professors, deans and chairs) are women, evidencing a significant gender gap.

Gender Equality

The report also shows that while most universities maintain they have various policies and services in place that support the advancement of women, many of the institutions are not transparent about their progress towards gender equality. On the upside, African universities are the most equal when it comes to their share of female students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), medicine, arts, humanities and social science.

Keynote speaker Lindi Dlamini, CEO of the GBVF-Response Fund 1, enthused that the number of women chancellors and vice-chancellors of the top universities in South Africa is at an unprecedented level. “We are hoping that this is going to contribute to a more progressive way in which universities will deal with the challenges of gender based violence.”

On the subject of gender-based violence and femicide, Ms Dlamini noted encouraging results from a report released by the South African Medical Research Council in March, which shows a reduction in rates of intimate partner violence and a 50% reduction in femicide throughout the country, with the exception of the Eastern Cape.

However, she was quick to point out that while the efforts of activists are starting to bear fruit and perhaps fewer woman are dying, the rates of intimate partner violence remains unacceptably high. “Indeed, we are very far from achieving our democratic ideals of gender equality in this country. Every woman harmed and every woman killed sets the fight back years.”

Conversations around gender diversity, gender equality, gender equity and gender inclusion should not continue without giving a voice to the issue of gender-based violence, said Titilope Oguntuga, Head of Sustainable Development and Corporate Brand at Lafarge Africa.

“When we talk about gender based violence, we also need to unpack what it means to us, the impact on societies across Africa and the implications for some of our actions… or in-actions as the case may be.”

She quoted the Institute of the International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health, which states that the highest prevalence of intimate partner violence reported included emotional violence at 29.4%, physical violence at 25.87%, and sexual violence at 18.75%.

“Now what does this mean to us and what does it tell us as a continent looking towards gender equality, gender diversity, and inclusion?”

She was optimistic that the Africa Strategy launched by the United Nations Global Compact is a step in the right direction and one that will drive the private sector to develop family friendly policies while also ensuring that we are eliminating violence and harassment in all its forms.

As to how the private sector and academia can work together, Ms Oguntuga suggested the private sector should contribute research funding in this area and partner with academic institutions on policy formulation. “When we have baseline data and statistics, we can design more pragmatic and tailor-made solutions that will help us deal with this scourge. Moreover, we cannot do much without policies or frameworks in place to quantify the expectations and obligations against which to track progress. ”

She concluded:”I believe that we can make gender based violence a key social performance indicator for societies across Africa by working with the academia. We must take a stand, not only in saying, but also in doing… because it is not okay. ”

Henry Onukwuba from the Lagos Business School pointed out that gender-based violence comes in multiple forms – physical, psychological, mental, and emotional. In the case of intimate partner violence, for example, this comes from in the form of physical harm, like slapping, kicking somebody or hitting somebody. It could be emotional abuse, social insults, and humiliation. It could also be controlling behaviors, isolating a person from family and friends and all that

Of real concern, according to Onukwuba, is the fact that so many incidents of GBV are never reported. Even more so in the case of intimate partner violence, because of societal expectations, fear of retaliation or a lack of alternative means of economic support. He also added that another form of GBV is child marriage. He saw the combined efforts of the community, the Church and government as key to creating awareness.

In Kenya, according to Dr. Mumbi Wachira from Strathmore University, civil society organisations typically lead the charge in raising awareness around gender based violence and femicide. However, she stressed, universities have a very important role to play and responsibility to society.

“We need to constantly be asking ourselves how do women rise and what role a University is playing? Of course, we need to look at the physical violence, but equally important is the emotional and the psychosocial effect of that violence and abuse on women and whether we are actually tracking this and the impact on women over time within our region, especially in East Africa.”

Dr Olebogeng Selebi from the University of identified with curriculum transformation as instrumental in moving dial on GBV and pointed out that organisations also have a lot of work to do in creating egalitarian workplaces. “Regardless of whether a student is an economist or an engineer, we all have to be educated on issues of gender equality. We need to talk about imagery and the perception we have of what is important. Women who work in the home should not be perceived as less than, just because they are not in a traditional workplace.”

When it comes to protecting our young students and our young leaders from GBV, added Chiedza Skyum from the African Leadership University, an important lesson we have learnt as an institution is in the response. Trauma support for GBV survivors has to be on two tiers – we have to have legislation, policies and robust, survivor-centred campus support and response structures, both on and off-campus.

She argued that many institutions fall short on providing survivor-centred response and follow up – both are very important because there needs to be a balance between providing sufficient support and follow up and ensuring both the survivor and their right to privacy are protected. . “As much as we are talking about prevention, it is also very important to talk about response – the way that we respond shows other survivors how useful it is for them to report.”

Dina Jonker from the Unisa College of Law summed the conversation up: “All the academic institutions here today have their own initiatives and projects to combat and eradicate GBV. Imagine the exponential impact we will have if we come together and see how we can assist each other. If you educate people about gender and GBV, you can realise gender equality and empower women.”

“What is important is the way forward in terms of what we do as academics and activists on the ground. It is about moving beyond the hashtag and coming together from across the spectrum to find ways of supporting women, creating safe spaces and sharing resources,” concluded Dr Hlengiwe Ndlovu from the Wits School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand.


[1] UNESCO Global education monitoring report 2022: gender report, deepening the debate on those still left behind

THE Unesco-IESALC Gender Equality report – Gender Equality: how universities are performing. Part 2