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Gender-based attacks haunt UWI, Mona

Published:Sunday | February 1, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Tyrone Thompson, Staff Reporter

IT is a problem which has plagued the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, for years: sexual harassment and other gender-based violence on the halls.

Last year, the university advertised for someone to take up a post of counsellor/sexual harassment adviser to deal with sexual violence on the campus. However, our news team was unable to confirm if someone had been found to fill the post.

Sunday Gleaner sources say the campus, with 70 per cent of its population being females, is a haven for those who assault and harass women.

The sources say female students, particularly those who live on the campus, have been subjected to various forms of violence.

But, responding to Sunday Gleaner questions, the administration at the university said it is not aware of wide-scale cases of gender-based violence on campus.

"Where cases are reported, the matter is investigated and disciplinary action taken against perpetrators. While the Mona campus is unaware of deliberate gender-based violence, the UWI, Mona, recognises the need to provide avenues for students to manage conflict of any kind, given the wider societal context, and has implemented a number of measures to address the matter," declared the administration.

The university also pointed to its sexual harassment policy and efforts to develop a safety and awareness campaign to address the various issues surrounding safety.


However, Taitu Herron, development specialist and gender analyst with the United Nations Development Programme, chronicled some of the reported cases of violence against women on the campus in her study Whose Business Is It? Violence Against Women at UWI, Mona.

In the study, Herron noted that while violence against female students was not unique to UWI, Mona, on other campuses around the world, the issue is given high priority, which is not the case at UWI.

She charged that instances of rape of female students on campus by persons known to them was highlighted by a student group called Society for the Upliftment of Women via Education as early as 2007, yet instead of working with that group to find solutions to the problem, the university's administration sanctioned members of the group for taking the issue public.

"Unfortunately, to date, there is no centralised approach to violence against women or even generally speaking gender-based violence on the University of the West Indies campuses," said Herron.

"Why has the earlier positive contributions to addressing the problem of violence against women at the university not been acted upon? Could it be a preoccupation with other matters such as university funding, fees, beatification and expansion? Could it be because of the predominance of male leadership in the university administration? Could it be a lack of sensitivity on their part even though the student body is largely female?"

Herron reported that between 2010 and 2012, the offices of security services received 67 reports of violence against female students on campus. These included five cases of rape, 11 cases of sexual harassment, and 18 cases of physical assault. There were also 10 cases of stalking and 17 cases of domestic dispute during the period - all of which took place on the halls of residence.


The numerous cases of violence against women, in particular domestic disputes and physical assault, forced the student group UWI SPAT to organise a speak-out forum for students to discuss the issue.

"It's something you always hear about happening on some of the halls on campus, so we thought we needed a forum for students to speak out about their experiences and find some solutions to it, and what we heard only confirmed that the rumours were real," said the student organiser, who told The Sunday Gleaner that he knew of at least six to seven cases of girls being assaulted on the halls of residence last year.

"A number of female students spoke about experiencing or having friends who had experienced violence on the residence halls. One person told us about a case where a girl was dragged down the hall by her hair, but other students and security guards didn't want to get involved because they said they are in a relationship," said the student.

Female advocate and counsellor with Woman Inc, Joyce Hewitt, who was a guest at the UWI Spat forum, said the accounts she heard pointed to a number of female students living in fear.

"I heard accounts of young ladies saying they were so afraid of being alone, one or two said they were so fearful of the sexual and physical intimidation they encountered, that they just did not go to places where they wanted to, such as the library," reported Hewitt.


The number of reported cases referenced by Heron in her study "may just be the tip of the iceberg in terms of the true numbers of female students who are actually assaulted on campus", Hewitt argued.

"These are reported cases and we know based on our experience with dealing with gender-based violence, where you have one reported case there are generally three to four cases out there unreported for a variety of reasons," said Hewitt. "Many of them fear some level of retribution, they feel some embarrassment, they feel some level of self-guilt, and this is why those at the administration of the university need to listen to the students more instead of trying to hide it as something shameful; just address it and put it out in the open."

However, president of the UWI Guild of Students, Lerone Laing, told The Sunday Gleaner that he did not think violence against women on campus was a chronic problem, as he had received no such reports in recent times.

"I'm not saying it doesn't happen. It's just the extent that I'm really questioning, but to be honest, that isn't one of the things we are giving priority attention at this time.

"I agree we should be encouraging persons to come forward and building awareness about these issues, but right now, unfortunately, we don't have those as one of our priority issues," explained Laing.