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International Women’s Day: The Role of Universities in Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Updated: Feb 6, 2021

by Ana Werkstetter

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a violation of human rights. It denies individual human dignity and fundamentally hurts human development. At Paeradigms, we understand Universities are vital spaces for the development of democratic and inclusive societies and protecting human rights. Whether in the Global South or in the Global North, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) can cultivate social justice by changing economic, political and cultural dynamics. They can lead to more just societies which protect their people's dignity by safeguarding their rights, including preventing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Photo courtesy of Brooke Cagle

How universities can contribute at a societal level

Academic research can provide insights into sexual and gender-based violence –what it looks like, where and when it takes place, and importantly, how to address and combat it. Academic fields such as Feminist Security Studies, for example, produce innovative and timely research on issues of war, peace and security and how they intersect with SGBV. Academic institutions can contribute to policy frameworks to combat SGBV by working together with partners such as the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the security sector, public prosecutors, women’s groups, civil society organisations and movements. Universities should and often do support national capacities to prevent violence against vulnerable groups and end impunity of the people who commit such violence.

Universities need to lead by example

When Higher Education Institutions fail to protect the dignity of their own communities – when there are no proper mechanisms to address SGBV within the HEI or when these are not implemented – this represents a failure to protect basic human rights. Experiences of sexual and gender-based violence in HEIs can at times deter women and other vulnerable groups from pursuing a career in scientific research or academia. This not only has enormous consequences for their individual lives, but also negatively impacts society at large when their potential contributions to their field are lost.

Many HEIs lack formal policies for reporting, investigating or punishing abuse or sexual misconduct, or do not closely enforce the policies they do have. HEIs must have the necessary victim-centred institutional capacities to address cases of SGBV in order to truly be able to create benefits and transform societies. A minimum standard is to have and implement accessible reporting mechanisms; holistic, appropriate student resources (including psychological, medical, legal and academic resources); and developed prevention strategies.

Ideally, HEIs would co-create such mechanisms together with those most vulnerable – students and early-career academics. Their input should be used in the design, implementation and revision of strategies that address and curtail abuse of power, sexual assault and harassment, and any other forms of gender-based violence. These mechanisms must focus on protecting the victims rather than the institutions and ensuring that victims are well-informed as to their options and can pursue legal action if so desired. Today, HEIs often choose to protect their own reputation, rather than the dignity and safety of their communities.

Part of a bigger picture of women’s rights and dignity

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995), the most comprehensive agenda for women’s rights and empowerment. On this International Women’s Day, while recognising the advances to gender equality worldwide, we reiterate, as so many did then, the importance of protecting women’s rights and their dignity everywhere. This includes equal access to education and to the labour market; the right to be free to pursue our own interest and passions without fear, and the right to make significant contributions to society without threat.

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