Student Sextortion: A silent cancer at media schools and institutions
By Busi Bhebhe
In March 2019, the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Honorable Monica Mutsvangwa announced that her office would be meeting with Deans at universities and colleges in order to emphasise to them that sexual abuse of students will no longer be tolerated.
Minister Mutsvanga said this at this year’s International Women’s day commemorations, while unveiling measures by the ministry to eradicate sexual abuse in newsrooms, paying particular attention to the abuse against student interns.
Her reference to the non-tolerance of sexually inappropriate behavior at institutions of higher learning may have seemed like a passing comment, but in reality sexual abuse against students is happening at colleges and at places of internship at alarming levels. For the purposes of this article, attention will focus on students of journalism and student interns at media institutions.
For years, subtle cries for help have come from the corridors of university, college campuses and media houses, from female students in general and journalism students in particular. Owing to the lack of known protective policies on reporting and handling sexual harassment cases at institutions of higher learning, or cases involving students in work placement, cases have only been retold through the grapevine and not through official channels.
The issue has attracted the attention of many vocal organisations and groups including the Zimbabwe Gender Commission (ZDC) which has urged universities to draw up policies that specifically address sexual harassment cases amid reports of increased sexual abuse cases involving students. The ZGC chairperson Mrs Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe noted that the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) was currently the only institution of higher learning with a known anti-sexual harassment policy.
Mrs Mukahanana-Sangarwe added that, most students do not report these cases and therefore the commission does not have statistics on cases. Asked why such cases are swept under the carpet and not reported, a student who chose to hide her true identity said, “[t]here is a preconceived innocence for the lecturer and the internship supervisor which does not exist for the student victim” says Clara (not her real name) a journalism student who says she was approached by three different lectures on different occasions asking for “a thigh for marks”, the common phrase for sextortion in colleges. She further revealed that
“[t]here are different levels of this abuse. The lower levels are when the lecturer flirts and pretends to be your friend and yet he is simply testing how gullible you are to fall for his advance. Then there is the level where the lecturer will claim to want to be in a long-term relationship with a student. This gives the student a false sense of commitment and to some extent security. The worst level is when the lecturer clearly threatens a student with course failure if she does not give in to his sexual advances. These are often one-night stands”
Sextortion has been referred to by the corruption watchdog Transparency International Zimbabwe as a term coined by the International Association of Women Judges referring to the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage. Sextortion has been traced as a growing cancer in various sectors in Zimbabwe from land, mining, service delivery and now even in the education sectors.
So common is the practice of sextortion in centers of higher learning that some female students are even peer pressured and coerced into agreeing to get into these ‘relationships’ to sail through college. These ‘relationships’ guarantee that there are no failed courses or subjects carried over to another year which come as an added financial burden.
One student who dared to speak out about her ordeal in 2015, as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence commemorations, Siphatho Ntini (not her real name), says she continues to live in fear following the video she made and the backlash that followed. She says that the ordeal made her understand why most women prefer being silent about such issues.
Siphatho says a group of people seemed to have been mobilized to discredit not just her story, but her character. Fellow students were used to question her morals on social media and university platforms. Colleagues of the accused lecturer who also worked in media opened pseudo Twitter and Facebook accounts where malicious posts about her character were shared, she says.
Siphatho adds, “The worst part is that a friend of mine, the one who had helped me record my video, and was working for an organization where her boss was friends with this lecturer, was actually fired from her job.”
She says her world came crumbling down. Those closest to her were also attacked, forcing her to stay out of school for close to a year and failing to graduate in time with her other classmates. Siphatho says even relations with other lecturers were sour because she could sense an undertone of resentment for what they claim she had done to one of their own. She says the few female lecturers who stood by and seemed to openly support her were sidelined and or slowly pushed out of the university.
A NUST student, Leah Mabhukukwa was quoted on Bulawayo 24, saying that, “[t]hese stories are not a myth, they do happen in real life. Most female students face this challenge at least once during their attachment. Other students end up dating their bosses in return for good grades during assessment”.
Ruvimbo Muchenje, Secretary General of the Journalism Students’ Network of Zimbabwe (JSNET) confirms that reporting cases of harassment has often led to victimization of students more than addressing the problem.
To counter incidents such as the ones described above, Mrs Mukahanana-Sangarwe said the ZGC was holding talks at tertiary institutions to reassure students of steps being taken to protect them and to urge university officials to take the matter of handling sexual harassment cases on campuses seriously.
Mrs Mukahanana-Sangarwe said they were “…going to hold public lectures at universities and conscientise students and lecturers on how to deal with such sexual harassment. For our first phase we will engage the University of Zimbabwe (UZ), National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Midlands State University (MSU) and Africa University (AU).”
In 2013, female journalism students from various tertiary institutions expressed their frightening ordeals on an online publication stating that going on attachment without financial allowances offered left them vulnerable to various forms of abuse.
The ZGV chairperson demanded that the sexually harassment policy should, “… make it clear on how victims are protected after perpetrators are reported, investigated and or convicted,” She added that the commission would conduct public lecturers in universities on sexual harassment and related issues.
Other organisations have been doing their part to protect the vulnerable, Ruvimbo, who is the Secretary General for JSNET says the organization has conducted boot camps and workshops for both sexes, with young and older practitioners in the media profession to equip them with response mechanisms.
She reckons that a deterring factor would be to have perpetrators arrested so that would be sex pest editors or colleagues appreciate the consequences before they seek for sexual favours.