ACTION against university sexual harassers can only be taken when victims report the cases to authorities, warns the Careers Counselling and Development Unit’s (CCDU) sexual harassment advisor, Maria Wanyane.

“You can stop this,” Wanyane said.  “You have the right. Work together with CCDU. Come and report it.”

While the university has a detailed sexual harassment policy and structure to deal with these cases of harassment by both staff and students, unless the case is reported to them, their hands are tied. “The challenge is that, if people don’t come forward, there’s not much we can do,” said Wanyane.

The university’s policy defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”

After an article about a lecturer sexually harassing students in the Wits Vuvuzela late last year, accusations against two other lecturers have been brought to paper’s attention. However, because the women being harassed themselves do not want to report the situation, steps cannot be taken against these lecturers.

Witnesses of sexual harassment are also unable to press charges against perpetrators.

“They can come here, and they can say: ‘I know this particular person has been harassing students’ and that will be noted,” said Wanyane.

The CCDU can then “go to that faculty to create awareness around sexual harassment.”

But an investigation can only be launched once a victim steps forward.

Even if students do not want to lay a formal complaint against their harassers, they can still go to the CCDU for guidance and counselling.

“Ultimately, it’s the student’s decision,” said Wanyane. “However, there are times when we do emphasise that an investigation has to be done around a particular act, for example, if someone has been raped on campus.”

The university will then investigate the matter, so as not to put other students at risk.

In cases where harassment is not severe, students can opt for a mediated discussion between themselves and the harasser, said Wanyane.

“Sometimes these people don’t interpret these things as sexual harassment,” explained Wanyane. “They think, ‘Ag, my behaviour is normal.’ It’s only when someone else says that what they are doing is actually sexual harassment that they realise.”

According to Wanyane, sexual harassment is a widespread problem in South Africa.

“It is a huge problem in society. So whatever is happening at Wits University, it’s not an isolated incident, it is a reflection of what’s happening out there in the community.”