UFS to simplify assault reporting

Professor Francis Petersen PHOTO: PULANE CHOANE

For many, half of the trauma of a rape, sexual harassment or assault case lies in the reporting of this incident. Research has shown that often victims drop these cases or do not at all report on the cases because many find the process both traumatic and repetitive, with many victims often citing harassment from both police and nurses at the hospitals.
The University of the Free State (UFS), however, is working on ensuring that students who report rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment at the university’s campuses will not endure this trauma of going from pillar to post.
Speaking at a media breakfast event held on Tuesday morning at the Bloemfontein campus, the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the institution, Professor Francis Petersen, briefed those in attendance on this intervention, which will form part of its Integrated Transformation Plan (ITP) for the next 5 years, starting in 2018.
“We are focused specifically on two issues related to sexual assault and harassment in the higher education environment, the first being: we want to ensure these incidents do not at all happen, and how we are doing this, is through the policies we’ve formulated and regular dialogue with the staff on the repercussion of these actions. The second issue we intend to address, is the reporting process and ensuring that when reported, the process is as humane and seamless as possible for the victim,” Prof Petersen said.
He explained that the university is working on ensuring that a team is established where victims of such crimes can report the crime as well as have a physical examination and receive counselling in one go, as opposed to the system that is currently used where victims go to the nearest police station, clinic or hospital and only thereafter receive treatment.
Professor Petersen said he will be working with the university’s gender office on this matter and has also already been in talks with the SRC, the student parliament as well as other student structures that are affected by this development.
“While we have created policies with regard to this issue, they are not yet to my satisfaction and this concern was highlighted at a recent student safety march,” he said. He also added that he will be working with the mentioned student structures to improve current policies to not only ensure that students, particularly female students, are safe on and off-campus but also that they do not fall victim to sexual harassment from lecturers.
Speaking on another issue that intersects with sexual assault especially in light of the recent death of a student in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, who jumped from a building, Prof. Petersen said the university will also be focusing on mental health issues affecting students at the university. While Prof Petersen again admitted that he is not completely satisfied with the current staff capacity of psychologists to attend to every student, he said this is a work in progress and that it’s not all bad.
The university’s capacity came under fire following the #BraamSuicide incidents, with many students questioning why there are only two psychologists when the university has over 22 000 students.
Prof Petersen explained that while the university does have a small number of psychologists, it also makes use of counsellors as well as psychologists that are used on a contractual and short-term basis and also, often, the university works with outsourced psychologists based on their availability.
Other areas of focus which will form part of the ITP include the formulation of a whistle and buddy system for on-campus students, the formation of a task team that will look into matters related to provisional registrations as well as the extending of the on-campus Wi-Fi radius to accommodate off-campus students.