Windhoek — The latest "trend" from institutions of higher learning is that students and lecturers are exchanging a lot more than knowledge and information. It is 'alleged' by some students that lecturers are soliciting sexual favours from students in exchange for better academic pass marks in their respective courses. Who is responsible for this trend, which in a doctor-patient relationship is deemed unethical?
Sex-for-marks, often dubbed "Sexually Transmitted Marks" (STM) is a well-known phenomenon. The University of Namibia (UNAM) and Walter Sisulu University (Mthatha campus, South Africa) made the news in 2011 with the sex-for-marks scandal. Cases have also been reported in Malawi and Zimbabwe.
In the Namibian case, the probe conducted by the university did not yield any result, as no students came forth with information. The university exonerated the lecturers.
The STM case in Namibia is a typical case of sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. A research conducted by Gender Links in 2010 titled Gender in Media Education (GIME): An audit of Gender in Journalism and Media Education and Training found out that sexual harassment is rife in tertiary institutions. Of the 25 institutions audited in Southern Africa 11 (44%) have sexual harassment policies while 56% do not.
UNAM for instance addresses sexual harassment in the Disciplinary Codes of Conduct that apply to both staff and students. The document also defines sexual harassment; sets out procedures of dealing with sexual harassment cases and the punishment to be administered. However, the GIME research also found out that sexual harassment policies are not well known or enforced.
The problem at stake is that lecturers involved in such relationships justify it and claim that it involves two consenting adults having a relationship or engaging in consensual sexual relations. Many students agree with this. However, with cultures and practises that blur lines between what is seen as sexually appropriate behaviour still in practise, these expressions come as no surprise.
As a facilitator in a focus group discussion with female students on the issue, I learnt that some female students had a hard time recognising some male advances as sexually provocative.
"We deal with the male students who fondle our buttocks. It's the same when you leave campus, the taxi drivers do the same and shout obscenities at us. We're just used to it," said one student. Another one added, "It's what men do. We have learned to ignore them."
Compared to the lewd advances of fellow students and other men in public, the subtle coercion that lecturers might apply is not easily identified as inappropriate or as sexual harassment, even though the student in question is not entirely comfortable with the situation.
Sexual harassment and exploitation has become normalised by a society whose culture allows men to inappropriately touch or communicate with women, and teaches women to quietly tolerate it.
Sadly, the sex-for-marks syndrome perpetuates the culture of silence and increases cases of sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. Investigations have been called for, but an air of denial still hangs.
A UNAM professor affirmed this when he pointed out that he did not see anything wrong engaging in a relationship with his student who is of age. "We have some very mature students here, and it is not illegal for two consenting adults to be in a relationship. What if she's the one that proposes the relationship?"
Many people, lecturers and students alike, feel the same - that the fault is as much the students' as it is the lecturers'. If people are going to take the lecturers to task then the students should also be taken to task.
There is a modicum of truth in these sentiments, but these should be seen rather as a focus on the dual accountability on the conduct of both the students and lecturers, not as a way to exonerate the actions of the lecturers, which are engrained in power relations.
Sounds simple enough, but if you have students that don't know what sexual harassment is, how can they report it?
The STM problem in many ways reflects the patriarchal dominant nature of relationships in society, whether sexual or otherwise. Lecturers, doctors and managers among others, regardless of sex or age or cultural orientation, are in a position of power over their students, patients and employees respectively.
There is a patriarchal understanding of power that it can and should be abused and exploited for self-serving reasons. This myopic understanding of power is what has lecturers justifying sex-for-marks.
On the other hand, young women are taught directly by their culture and indirectly by pop-culture that sex and their superficial sexuality is a tradable commodity and can be used as a means to an end.
So how did our conversation with the lecturer end? Despite reminding him that he is a signatory to a code of conduct that required him to always be professional in his activities as a lecturer; and that a lecturer sleeping with a student, whether of age or if she initiated it is abuse of power, he remained adamant.
Thus any attempt to present sexual harassment in a perpetrator-victim frame will do it no justice. It is but a minor reflection of a bigger problem, the institutionalisation of patriarchy and the sexualisation of the female body.
Until a social and cultural system that presents a different understanding of power and gender relations, women and men will continue to exploit whatever leverage they have to get their way. Sexual harassment in institutions of higher learning will only end if young women understand what sexual harassment is and learn not to abuse their sexuality in order to attain a qualification.
Sheena Magenya is a freelance journalist based in Namibia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.