Inadequate Financial Support

As mentioned in the previous chapter, insufficient financial support is also a major factor contributing to dropout rates for women as well as men—and especially for poor black female students who come from rural areas. Because of the high level of unemployment in those students’ rural hometowns, they often send back home to their family as much as 80 percent of the scholarship money meant to maintain them at the university.53 As a result, it isn’t uncommon for such students to lack adequate funds for meals or for traveling back and forth to their campuses.54 And because many of the fathers of these students have left home to work in the cities, young female students must often take care of immediate family needs—not only by sending money home but also by securing a job while in school or simply returning home to work.55 All of these financial concerns disrupt their studies and can ultimately ruin their opportunity to graduate with a college degree.

Sexual Assault and Safety Issues

Beyond educational and financial challenges, the university setting also creates a whole new set of social ones. The sophistication level of women when they enter the higher education system is a factor, especially for those who are coming from a rural area to an urban area. Life at a university can be quite a culture shock for many young women. For the first time, they have no parental guidance, and beyond the university itself, no authority figure to whom they must answer. They enter a new, fascinating, and unfamiliar place that tests their values in many areas, including sexuality and sexual relations, which can often put women in difficult situations.

Sharmala Govender, CEO of Big Brothers, Big Sisters of South Africa, described the situation:

It’s a whole new experience being at university, and there are boys everywhere. Young women will have relationships, sometimes many relationships, increasing the likelihood of picking up HIV/AIDS. It’s all the secondary issues that now come into play. And this is what affects woman the most because men don’t have to go through all this as a woman does. They leave their homestead much earlier than a woman does. She only leaves when she’s ready for higher education; other than that, she doesn’t step foot out of there. Women enter the system very immature.56

It is not uncommon to hear stories about violence against women on university campuses, including murder. Those are horrible and real stories, and the kind not expected to be associated with an academic institution. But, in actuality, the campus environment does not always respect the rights and the dignity of women.57 Women find themselves victimized in the very system that is supposed to be promoting knowledge and civility.

Maria Phalime, author and former deputy director of 2010 FIFA World Cup at Provincial Government, learned first-hand what it felt like to be a woman on a campus and how she worried about her safety and that of her friends:

Strangely, the university was not a safe place. I remember that, during my Varsity days, there was fear around going out at night and going to parties— which is what a university’s partly about, really. Those are your party years. But in my circle of friends, there were experiences of rape and abduction.58

In fact, one of the key findings to emerge from the work of the Committee on Progress Towards Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions was the prevalence of sexism and the sexual harassment of female students on campuses. In the committee’s view, “the impact of sexism is as pernicious as that of racism. If you are black and a woman it is doubly painful.”59

Students described to the committee frequent situations of sexual harassment in the form of sexual favors that lecturers often expected of female students in exchange for good grades. Rape and violence were also common on many campuses, although such incidents were often kept quiet as a result of entrenched institutional culture and the lack of enforcement of the policies established to protect people.

Rhodes University, a historically all-male institution, that is today coed, is an example of one where institutional culture and lack of enforcement of policies perpetuate violence against women.60 During the committee hearings, students from that institution reported that a culture had developed over time at Rhodes that undervalued women. They described how university officials had met complaints of gender inequality, sexism, and sexual harassment with resistance and a “denial of responsibility.” Cases of rape were not made public, records weren’t kept, and women who were abused or assaulted were not encouraged to report the inci- dences.61 The committee concluded: “There is no doubt, given the endemic rape and sexual harassment in South African society, that it is equally prevalent in higher education institutions. It is therefore cause for concern that sexism and sexual harassment have not featured significantly in the institutional submissions.” In other words, institutions had avoided acknowledgment of the issue. 62

The material culture that exists on many campuses further complicates women’s lives. Women feel pressured to have the right clothes, the right cell phone, and other items that define status. In fact, one way that older men on campuses gain power over younger women is by becoming “sugar daddies” and providing material possessions to them. That puts such men in a position to make sexual demands on the woman and leaves her in a position of weakness. In such situations, for example, the woman is not able to insist that the man use a condom or be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, which can result in unwanted pregnancies and/or the transmission of HIV/AIDS.63

In addition, the threat of violence outside of the university can have ramifications on students and faculty members on the campus, as it can discourage women from coming to classes or restrict the times they feel safe to do so. Nadine Petersen, professor of education at the University of Johannesburg, recalls her experience teaching an evening class;

I teach a class in the evenings, and two-thirds of my black students, particularly women, have to leave at a particular time halfway through the class. Already they’re at the disadvantage because of language and other issues, and then they have to leave halfway through the class because they have to get public transport at a particular time. If they miss that transport, they’ve had it.64

According to Petersen, the problem affects the ability to students to maneuver around the campus, to access library facilities after hours, or to simply travel between the university and home.65 In an attempt to deal with the safety issues she has described, many of the women make arrangements with a particular taxi driver to be picked up as a group at a certain time because South Africa does not have a safe or reliable public transportation system.

 
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