Harassment policy strong, process poor

STUDENTS on campus like to debate. Walk down the Library Lawns and you’re likely to hear heated discussions about the recent strikes, student politics, pop versus rock music or theories on whether God exists. But how often do you hear students talking about sexual harassment? Who even knows what it is? Sexual harassment exists and it is pervasive on campus. But it’s very rarely talked about.

A victim of sexual harassment on campus told Vuvuzela that sexual harassment can be defined as “unwanted sexual attention in which one is disempowered and one feels one has no way of stopping it. It could be verbal or physical.”

The university defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on gender or sexual orientation, affecting the dignity of women and men working, studying and/or living at the university. This conduct can include physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct which is perceived as unwelcome. Sexual harassment covers a wide range of behaviours, from offensive staring, gestures or comments, to physical assault and rape.”

Wits has a comprehensive sexual harassment policy, as well as a full-time sexual harassment officer based at the Careers, Counselling and Development Unit (CCDU). Thabang Payane Oliphant deals with all sexual harassment complaints made by students or lecturers, and is tasked with creating awareness around sexual harassment – what it is and how it is dealt with.

She uses the university’s definition of sexual harassment, because it takes into account “perceptions of the complainant”, with people experiencing sexual harassment in different ways.

Payane Oliphant assists complainants in filling in the Harassment Complaint Form. This form describes the type of harassment and the recourse open to the complainant. Victims of sexual harassment can ask that the perpetrator be called in and spoken to.

Payane Oliphant also oversees mediation between a complainant and victim and the counselling provided by CCDU. In unresolved and serious cases, the complaint is sent to the Wits Legal Office where, in co-operation with Campus Control, it is investigated. Payane Oliphant is meant to follow the complaint until the case is closed.

The process is not perfect. A staff member at Wits who did not wish to be named spoke with Vuvuzela about a sexual harassment complaint that a student had lodged with CCDU this year. The staff member described the difficulties the student experienced having the complaint dealt with. Allegedly, the written complaint was lost and a second one had to be lodged. After the complaint was re-lodged, Payane Oliphant was on leave so another CCDU officer handled the case speedily and it was forwarded to the Legal Office as per procedure. Payane Oliphant said that if a complaint had been lost she was not aware of it because the complainant had not come forward and told her about it.

The staff member who spoke about the lost complaint said about the university policy: “In principle the university has it right. But in any institution something as difficult as sexual harassment has a danger of falling through the cracks.” The staff member recommended that the Sexual Harassment Officer develop a better relationship with staff members because staff members are often the first port of call when a student has been harassed.

Often after a complaint has been sent to the Legal Office, the process seems to stall, and complainants may find themselves in a position where they are forced to be in contact with the alleged perpetrator – in lectures or tutorials, etc.
Heinrich Valentine of the Wits Legal Office says: “We weigh up the evidence and then make a decision on whether to recommend disciplinary action or not.” This process however is not always timeous and is dependent “on how much evidence we have and how much is missing”.

But if a complainant is extremely afraid, there is a provision in the university’s policy whereby the Registrar or the Vice-Chancellor can place a suspension order on the alleged perpetrator, he said.

Vuvuzela discovered this in a recent case where several complaints were made against one perpetrator at Wits. The complaints are currently being processed, and the alleged perpetrator has been placed under a suspension order.
Registrar Dr Derek Swemmer says, “Once the appropriate notices have been served, a disciplinary enquiry will occur. It is premature to speculate about the outcome of the hearing.”

The registrar says that the complainants have additional protection through the suspension order. “The suspension requires that he does not commit any act of inappropriate behaviour while on campus,” he said. However, the complainants have allegedly not been informed of the nature of the suspension order, the status of their complaints, or whether a disciplinary hearing will be held.


The alleged perpetrator is still on campus pending the disciplinary hearing. Swemmer says “suspension orders are not normally made public as they are in operation only as a precautionary step until such time as disciplinary hearing has occurred. If a student is found not guilty after such a hearing it would be inappropriate for the university to have announced the nature of any suspension.”
“The university regards sexual harassment in a very serious light,” he says. “The policy has two elements: first, it is intended to support the victim of the harassment; second, it aims at making the perpetrator answerable for his or her actions. The policy is widely publicised…”

The policy is available from Payane Oliphant, or on the Wits Intranet, and takes different perceptions of sexual harassment into account. This is considered when complaints are processed.

One Response to “Harassment policy strong, process poor”

  1. AlexM August 16, 2008 at 9:47 am #

    Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

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