Nowhere to Hide

Student Activism takes a win for accountability for gender-based violence

Leigh Day Alumna Thando George tells the story of how she together with Fort Hare’s Student Law Society and fellow LLB scholars took action in response to repeated incidences of gender-based violence (GBV) within the department. It is a story of what can be achieved when you know and are armed with the law.

When you go to university, you here all these stories from female students about what happens, they tell you which lecturers to watch out for, but you never think its going to happen to you. But in my final year at university, it did happen to two students in my class, and one was a friend. We were shocked when the lecturer in question returned to class the following week. The faculty had turned a deaf ear to the student’s complaint enabling the lecturer to not only continue working but also create a very hostile environment in his lecture for all the female students in the class.

A few of us decided to do something about it. We were surprised to find out that the university did not have a sexual harassment policy in place. Considering that the university is over a hundred years old, it was a cause for concern that female staff and students were not protected. We decided to put on our activist socks and hold the faculty and institution accountable.

But it all fell on deaf ears.

So we decided to hold a protest. We asked the two ladies if they were willing to come forward and they agreed, saying that the university needed to be held accountable for how they chose to handle the matter. As this was happening, we continued to be verbally harassed by the lecturer in question.

The story took off, the media was there and for the first time we had to think as the Law Student Council about what a policy that protects students and staff would look like. Within all of the power dynamics of a university institution, how do we make sure that a policy actually works to protect everyone and is an effective deterrent against harassment. You hear stories about first years coming to East London from the rural areas for the first time, who are co-erced into having sex with older students for a place to stay. We wanted to make sure that even first years could feel safe; that the university had counselling facilities and that were actively working for the protection of the students.

I had been working for the faculty for three years when this happened and during that time, the time came for the contract to be renewed. Without any reason, they cut my salary in half. I felt this was part of their intimidation of us – to show us who was in power.

As students it was quite scary to hold your lecturers, your dean to account and university staff to account. They are people who can and did make your life very difficult. But we found the courage to speak truth to power. The student body all came together for one cause and that was the protection of students.

In the end, supportive faculty members and the Law Student Council were able to ensure a sexual harassment policy was put in place. It was a victory for students and in particular for law students, that we could use the tools and skills we were learning – even if it meant we were using it against the very people who were teaching us the law. It showed us that the law is an instrumental tool in fighting injustice.

I look back at that victory now and am reminded that our voices do matter. We can be agents of change in our own community. Today, I work at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa. We hold the government to account through research about the law, policy reform, advocacy and litigation.

From homeslessness to hunger and patriarchy, this video is a compilation of snippets from a longer conversation on the challenges faced by law scholars coming to Fort Hare between two Professors from the Fort Hare law faculty.