‘We must all help end the pandemic of gender-based violence’ – Women’s Day Message from UP Vice-Chancellor

Posted on August 09, 2020

On 9 August 1956, thousands of women marched on the Union Buildings to demand their right to freedom of movement. This historic moment popularised the slogan Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo (You strike a woman, you strike a rock).

These brave women were led by the likes of struggle stalwarts Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa and Helen Joseph. They marched on the Union Buildings to protest against pass laws which were designed to limit the movement, access to housing and livelihood of black people in apartheid South Africa.

Since that moment, much has changed in the world and in South Africa, but a lot still remains to be done to uplift and include women in the economy and within the global political sphere. On Women’s Day and during Women’s Month, we highlight and salute all the brave women of South Africa who, despite their struggles and responsibilities, continue to achieve and excel.

We need to transform the lives of women to be able to turn our society into the equitable one we’d like to see. At the University of Pretoria (UP), we are doing our bit to create this society within our lifetimes. It is gratifying to note one of the graduation trends at UP: in recent years the majority of our graduates have been black women, who will go out into workplaces or start their own businesses. In 2019, over 3 000 female students received their degrees in scarce skills areas. These inspiring women will no doubt help to uplift families and society as a whole.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics’ (UIS) 2019 report, women account for a minority of the world’s researchers. Despite the growing demand for cross-nationally-comparable statistics on women in science, national data and their use in policymaking often remain limited. We are concertedly working towards having 50+% women professors and NRF A-rated researchers, to set an example for society and help get more women into the top leadership. Our executive leadership has 33% female representation. Currently 48% of our female staff have PhDs. Out of a total of 8 481 researchers employed by the university, 4 720 (55%) are women. Of these, 3 079 (29%) are black women. This reflects an encouraging trend towards gender equality, but we are acutely aware that the higher you go in academia in South Africa, as in business and government, the more men you find: male professors and male A-rated researchers, while women are glaringly under-represented.

At UP we currently have 77 (30.1%) women professors out of a total of 256. UP is home to 528 researchers with National Research Foundation (NRF) ratings, of which 190 (36%) are women, while only 3 of our 14 NRF A-rated researchers are women. Our efforts towards addressing this are facilitated by our Department of Research and Innovation, which has implemented a number of programmes in support of early-career academics and researchers, with specific reference to black and female researchers. All our programmes are strongly underpinned by mentorship, which accelerates the time frame for moving from early career to professor to 15 to 20 years, instead of 28 years. This is achieved without any compromise to quality through a number of key initiatives, including supporting postdoctoral fellowships, significantly reducing the teaching load to give academics more time to focus on their research and publication outputs, and one-on-one mentoring.

One of UP’s interventions against gender-based violence is through our #SpeakOutUP campaign, which is one of the ways in which we live THE UP WAY. This ongoing campaign is steered by our Transformation Office, which is mandated to support institutional efforts to create a transformed, equal and equitable University community. The campaign raises awareness about gender-based violence and discourages violent, offensive and discriminatory behaviour on campus. Through #SpeakOutUP, staff and students are encouraged to break the silence by contacting the various support structures that have been put in place. We are committed to providing a non-sexist and non-discriminatory working, living and study environment for staff and students; one in which every person is able to achieve their full potential.

In addition we are actively advancing the role of women in leadership. Part of our strategy includes initiating programmes and frameworks that actively promote and strengthen women’s participation, such as developing a Woman in Leadership Programme to give female leaders the tools they need to stand out as worthy contenders. In 2014, we established the TuksRes Women in Leadership Academy in order to provide a platform through which to enrich the lives of young women at university.

As we train the next generation of professionals, researchers, and entrepreneurs, we need to live THE UP WAY by ensuring that the men that we send out into the world, whether our sons, students or ourselves, are not perpetrators of violence and discrimination against women. It is our duty to be cognisant of casual sexism and sexual harassment within our homes and workplaces, and do our best to ensure that women are safe around and with us. We must all ensure that we use our resources and work towards ensuring that the scourge of gender-based violence no longer affects our communities.

There are still millions of women who spend valuable time fetching water and firewood in order to take care of their children. Economic and cultural disparities continue to limit the choices women have over their lives, health and career choices. We owe it to Lilian Ngoyi and her comrades to ensure that all these hurdles must be removed so that women can take their rightful place in our democracy and on our continent.

Women still face significant patriarchal constraints, and these attitudes are often carried into the workplace by men. The University of Pretoria has one of the strongest antidiscrimination policies in the higher education sector. We are resolute in our zero-tolerance approach to gender-based violence in all its forms, which includes sexual harassment.

There is still a lot of work to be done in order to ensure that women can participate and contribute fully in the social and economic life of our country. Levels of violence against women are unacceptably high. Women and girls not only live in fear of violence, but are also socialised to regard violence against them as a normal part of life. Just as COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic, so too has gender-based violence against women at the hands of men. This pandemic has to end, and it is up to each of us to help end it. Research shows that societies with high levels of gender parity and equality are more successful and sustainable. The University of Pretoria will use all the knowledge it creates to contribute to similar outcomes in South Africa and our continent.

This Women’s Month, we will host several webinars and online dialogues to celebrate women’s achievements, and we will be profiling some of our shining stars from across the university on our various platforms. We do this to not only highlight their contributions to the University of Pretoria, but to share more on the impact women have on our lives and society as a whole through the contribution of their work and research passions.

Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria and professor of media studies and literature.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 7 August 2020.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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