#WomenofUP: ‘Institutional culture must be interrogated to effect true change’

Posted on August 20, 2021

“Women don’t need sympathy or to be accommodated – they need to be part of future decisions so that they can co-create to change the status quo.”

This is the sentiment expressed by Nontsikelelo Loteni, Director of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Transformation Office, on how to begin tackling the gaps in the professional world that still keep women out of key decision-making processes.

It is clear that for Loteni “transformation” isn’t just a buzzword. The Transformation Office is responsible for providing strategic advice and driving the transformation agenda of an equitable and inclusive university.

Loteni adds that while it is important to recognise and appreciate some of the existing policies in place in various sectors, the environment in which these policies are implemented should also be conducive to change.

“A lot has been done over the years to develop legislation and policies that address, among others, issues of representation among women, discrimination, inequality, sexual harassment, and sexual and gender-based violence. However, setting up policies is not enough: the environment where those policies exist still needs to transform. The institutional culture, norms and traditions must still be interrogated for change.”

According to the Africa Health Organisation, about 51% of women in South Africa say they’ve experienced gender-based violence (GBV), with 76% of men saying they’ve perpetrated GBV at some stage in their lives. This is why GBV is seen as “South Africa’s second pandemic”. Loteni thinks that one of the ways women can be protected is firstly by acknowledging that GBV is not just a “women’s problem”.

“Sexual harassment, sexual and gender-based violence is still the biggest challenge we face in our society, including in our workplace,” she says. “Fighting this ‘pandemic’ will require collaborative efforts from everyone. Conversations among women alone will not help much.”

Loteni adds that while efforts have been made to put a stop to the scourge of GBV, more can be done. “We have hosted a number of webinars where these issues have been discussed. We need to continue to influence different segments of our society; a call for action is needed for all role players to come together, similarly to the call to rebuild SA after the tragedy we faced as a nation,” she says, referring to unrest that erupted in the country in July.

On a more personal note, Loteni says her style of leadership is inspired by future thinking, motivating and encouraging others for change. She believes in building and leaving a legacy that one will be proud of and has over the years cemented her position as a leader by working with various NPOs. “I engage with NPOs that are responsible for safeguarding the rights of vulnerable groups and my contribution is to influence them to take a lead through involvement in decision-making, especially in areas that impact on their human rights: legislation and the implementation of human rights programmes.”

Loteni has albinism and says that individuals with this condition encounter extensive discrimination and marginalisation. “The issue is worsened by lack of knowledge and widespread myths about the condition,” she explains. “These perceptions and myths sometimes influence the way people regard those with albinism. We always have to work harder to prove our competency and capability.”

Women with albinism also face an added challenge, Loteni says. “Sexual and gender-based violence has more impact on me as a woman with albinism. I constantly have to be more vigilant about my security due to the myths that exist in our society that the body parts of individuals with albinism make potent charms that can make people rich and successful, and that having sexual intercourse with a person with albinism can cure HIV/AIDS. This puts us in a particular risk of gender-based violence and femicide.”

To eliminate these harmful practices, communities need to be educated extensively, says Loteni, and where cases have been reported, offending individuals must be investigated and sentenced. “We have seen little of that to date,” she says.

As for her advice for young women, Loteni says: “Make sure you dream big – transform from ordinary to greatness.”

- Author Masego Panyane

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