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Let UWI pay! - Gender activist urges students to take legal action against university over gender-based violence on campus

Published:Sunday | March 1, 2015 | 12:00 AMTyrone Thompson
Students at the Mary Seacole Hall, stage a silent protest against gender-based violence at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus recently.

One of the nation's leading gender activists is calling for females who believe their safety is not sufficient priority by the administrators of the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI) to take legal action against that institution.

According to voluntary researcher and development specialist at the Women's Resource and Outreach Centre, Joan Grant Cummings, in light of the recent attacks against female students on the university campus, continued ambivalence on the part of the administration could amount to negligence.

Grant Cummings says the incidents of gender-based violence reported at the Mona campus was a problem she encountered while working in Canada, until female students started taking their safety into their own hands.

"What used to happen is that many universities would try to mask incidents of date rape which was prevalent at the time and that approach was not changed until female students started hiring lawyers and suing the schools for not ensuring their personal safety," said Grant Cummings, as she argued that legal action should also be taken against administrators of other universities across the island when they are negligent in protecting students.

"While it would be unfortunate for universities in Jamaica to be faced with such a lawsuit, students need to read their school handbooks and realise that they are clients of the school, and so the school is bound to offer them basic safety, and if they fail to do so, sue them."

Grant Cummings' comments came in the wake of the assault of two female students on the Mona campus as several other female students from the campus took to social media to speak of their own experiences with gender-based violence there.

"When you look at the experiences that some of these ladies are recounting, it is evident that the university does have a security problem and it must be dealt with urgently or it must be made to pay the price," argued Grant Cummings.

However, attorney-at-law Bert Samuels is warning female students who are considering suing the university following gender-based violence that it would be difficult to make the argument that the university was negligent.

"The first thing the student has to prove is that the university's administration has a duty to protect her from violence, and then everything would flow from that, but at the same time it is not proven by a single incident, it must be shown that it is due to the inadequacy of the security which led to your incident," said Samuels.

"However, the law says if you have a duty and you have been put on notice about that duty and there is a particular hotspot on campus, for example, the resident halls, and you fail to increase the security in that hotspot, then you are being negligent."

Director of security at the Mona campus, Keith 'Trinity' Gardner, has already argued that the attacks on female students were not indicative of a failure in security.

"Let me make it clear that I am not condoning any violence, but this latest incident took place after a verbal altercation, and how can you prevent verbal altercations or prevent people from associating together on an open campus like the UWI? The fact is that this could have happened to anyone, male or female," argued Gardner.

"As far as I am aware, the physical security of the campus is sufficient so there is no need for additional security. What is necessary is for a campus-wide education as to how to deal with violence not just against female students but against male students, members of staff and visitors," added Gardner.