by Chumile Jamela
Lisa Kunene’s* path to higher learning has been a painful one. A 20-year-old first-year engineering student at one of the top universities in Zimbabwe, she was born to a poor communal farmer in rural Matebeleland South, one of the country's driest provinces. She has had to endure the worst economic hardships. So it came as a big surprise and relief when she learned that she had been admitted into university. This was supposed to open the way to a very bright future, as well as provide a stepping-stone to the empowerment she had been waiting for all her life.
Despite official government pronouncements and policy declarations about women's empowerment, female students in Zimbabwe's centers of higher learning report that they are increasingly subjected to sexual harassment by their lecturers.
According to the Students And Youths Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT), a student membership-based organization whose thrust is to address the sexual and reproductive health challenges of students in Zimbabwe's tertiary institutions, there is high prevalence of sexual harassment cases in colleges and students have limited knowledge of legal recourse.
Students, especially those from out of town with no nearby relatives, find themselves in vulnerable positions because of their economic circumstances. This makes getting through college very hard. Lecturers and other well-to-do men often target them for what they see as cheap sex.
As a recent report by the University of Zimbabwe's Centre for Population Studies titled Sex and Sexuality Amongst University of Zimbabwe Students states, "female students mainly form sexual networks to gain material things from ‘sugar daddies' and married working class men who provide material things such as accommodation and financial security.”
Lisa knows this only too well.
"One of my professors called me to his office after I had failed his paper. He gave me a choice, sleep with me and get everything you want (including a Class 1 degree), or continue failing," says a visibly miserable Lisa. She cannot help but cry as she relates her ordeal at the hands of a lecturer at the university.
"I don't know about these city girls, but where I come from, sex between unmarried people is taboo. So now I'm left with only two choices: sacrifice my values, all that I know and believe in, or give up my dream."
With colleges charging between $400 USD and $800 USD per semester, in a country where some employees go for months without salaries, some students actually solicit sex. They flirt and make advances on their lecturers in order to afford fees, accommodation, toiletries, and food, effectively creating an unending cycle of sexual abuse. Females are cynically seen as having an advantage over male students, as they can use sex - voluntarily or by force - to get their degrees and diplomas.
A male lecturer at one of the country's teacher training colleges, who while admitting that the sexual abuse of females was not new, said that it had recently taken on a more sinister dimension. As he spoke, I could not help but ask myself what he was doing as a male lecturer to stop this.
"These lecturers make a bad name for all of us because they actually prey on vulnerable students who have no means of support and who can’t report them for fear of expulsion. But what can I do even if I know this? Nothing," claims the lecturer.
Although universities have some guidelines on disciplinary and ethical conduct for staff, there is no clear policy from the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education in Zimbabwe on what happens to perpetrators of sexual harassment. They get away with it. Most students are intimidated into not reporting. Some fear for the future of their studies should any action not go in their favour. I have yet to see a public example of a lecturer being disciplined for sexual harassment in tertiary institutions.
I read the other day in the Sunday Mail, a local paper, about a school principal who learned a male teacher was abusing one of his students. Instead of reporting the case to the police, the headmaster had the student transferred to another school to cover up the abuse. That was the end of it.
Lately, when I watch the news bulletin on national television or read the local state-owned papers, there is always something about women's empowerment. Since the country is preparing for elections and women form the largest voting bloc, I dismiss it in part as political campaigning. The sexual abuse of female students continues despite government rhetoric championing women's rights. For me the question to ask is: if empowerment does not begin at the centres where tomorrow's leaders are ostensibly being groomed, is there any sincerity at all in such pronouncements?
Higher education is supposed to give women options and strengthen their chances when competing with their male counterparts. These young women are experiencing dis-empowerment at a stage when they should be preparing for entry into the country's political, economic, and corporate sectors as leaders and decision makers.
Women now have to work twice as hard to prove that they got their degrees by merit and not by sleeping their way through college. Many females in positions of power agree that all efforts at gender equity will come to naught if these young women trying to better their lives are subjected to degrading acts by the very people who are supposed to be pushing them to achieve.
Tabitha Khumalo, a Movement for Democratic Change senior official, said recently that female university students will not assume any positions of power after they graduate if they are not empowered right from college. Khumalo believes this empowerment ought to begin with a conducive environment for education, where women are viewed as equal to their male colleagues.
A member of the Student Representative Council (SRC) - a body that represents students' affairs in universities and colleges - says that the situation is worsened by the fact that colleges do not have enough housing for all students. Students have to look for alternative accommodations in the neighbouring suburbs, where greedy landlords charge exorbitant rental fees for a room shared by at least four students.
"These students, especially the rural folk, just can’t afford these expenses and at the same time still raise money to pay fees, so they are vulnerable and fall victim to these preying lecturers and sugar daddies who promise them money for food and other expenses."
As far back as the 1990s researchers have investigated this sexual abuse and, while admitting this is widespread, offer no conclusive statistics about the disturbing phenomenon. Perhaps because the female students do not make official complaints about their experiences.
The National AIDS Council (NAC), a government body, has said that colleges and tertiary institutions have become a hotbed for the transmission of HIV/AIDS. There remain, however, no visible initiatives to protect female students on the path to higher education.
Lisa looks shattered when I ask her what choice she will make.
"What good is a first class degree if I get HIV?"
It is therefore obvious that we are still a long way off in our efforts to better the lives of the girl child if they have to go through all these difficulties and degradations and are still expected to perform well in class.
*Not her real name.
About the Author:
Chumile Jamela is a 28-year-old Zimbabwean writer. What inspires her to write is a deep need to document women's stories in Zimbabwe about how they have survived, are surviving the hardships, and how their lives can be bettered in an environment where women largely remain without access to basics. She loves athletics, reading, and writing.