Seeing that voices are being amplified on the urgency of eradicating gender-based violence in South Africa, the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme dedicated a session to this plight during the Studentpreneurs Indaba that was held from 4 to 5 September 2023, held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

EDHE, through its Student Women Economic Empowerment Programme (SWEEP) initiative, facilitated a dialogue titled, ‘Does the economic empowerment of student women play a role in fighting GBV?’ With the objectives of SWEEP directed at providing student women entrepreneurs with skills and opportunities to ensure economic participation and remove them from harm, including abusive relationships, this dialogue looked at women’s economic empowerment, benefits of interdisciplinarity, mental health and other social dynamics.

Ms Ellen Fischat (left), Founder of Story Room, a social enterprise focusing on inclusive, digital and socio-economically impactful programme design and implementation, led this session. 

The participating panellists were Dr Dorothy Ngila, Director: Strategic Partnerships at the National Research Foundation. She coordinates, advises, and directs contributions of NRF to the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI) in sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Ngila also advocates for gender and intersectionality, focusing on women in science. Alongside her was Ms Mahlodi Letsie, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Bare Mind, a health-tech startup that encompasses medical and spiritual interventions for the mental wellness of users. The last panellist was Dr Fikile Vilakazi, Director of UWC’s Gender Equity Unit, whose objective it is to ensure social justice: that no one is discriminated against, harassed or hurt because of their gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation within UWC.

This session was premised on awareness that women often stay in abusive relationships because of economic dependence on male providers. Ms Fischat posed questions that sought to obtain solutions for student women who find themselves in this predicament.

Question: Mahlodi, does your platform provide statistics on the prevalence of GBV? To what extent do people use Bare Mind because of this harsh reality?

Ms Mahlodi Letsie (right): Statistics around GBV are alarming, and I believe access to mental health resources helps. We know that one in four people suffers from mental health-related conditions, and the list of statistics is not exhaustive. Due to the stigma and sensitive nature of mental health-related issues, people are not forthcoming about what they are going through.

On GBV, we need to create safe spaces where people feel comfortable sharing their experiences and getting help for this plight that women and men alike experience in our country.

Question: Dr Ngila, what happens with on-going research, and how does it translate into solutions on the ground?

Dr Doroty Ngila (below, left): A lot of research is being undertaken. At the NRF, we fund significant research dedicated to GBV.

What the research is telling us is multifaceted. It says GBV is not only about the present but carries baggage from the past and one’s childhood. It could be that one experienced GBV or witnessed it in their home environment. Connecting this to the issue of mental health, which we have significant challenges in tackling, we need to find solutions as a country.

The research around GBV has to centre on sex and gender intersectionality. It has to ask the right questions, tell the stories of victims and interrogate the importance of allyship and policy. It has been great to see that the work of the South African Research Chairs Initiative SARChI) and the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) is directly linked to policy. They are engaging with government and leadership, formulating a national plan to deal with GBV.

Question: Dr Vilakazi, how does UWC deal with GBV, and what should students and lecturers know?

Dr Fikile Vilakazi: The Gender Equity Unit is a supporting structure amongst many others, collaborating to ensure that UWC is a GBV-free zone. Of course, that is our vision. In practice, we face some challenges.

For instance, students come to university not solely to learn but also to thrive. Achieving that becomes a challenge when they do not have sufficient resources such as income for personal needs or study bursaries. This makes them vulnerable; they end up taking routes that threaten their safety. 

As such, the institution aims to provide them access to equitable education and opportunities through various resources. That is where we operate as a unit.

Question: Mahlodi, how do students get access to your platform, and how can that support them?

Ms Letsie: We would need to partner with organisations across South Africa to ensure that students, working professionals and youth can access mental health services that support them in their everyday health and wellness journey.

We are finalising the development of our platform and are open to exploring partnerships at university level with student wellness centres. Ours is to leverage technology, ensuring that students can receive help imminently when in need without worrying about money. The platform would also ensure that help is not delayed due to capacity constraints such as   inadequate staff to attend to student issues within institutions.

Question: Dr Ngila, you mentioned allyship; how do we bring that into our work and business environments?

Dr Ngila: I think we have had such a gaze for many years about fixing women. Even how we frame our questions today looks at how we fix the women, so that they do not experience GBV. Women are not the perpetrators but victims and survivors. The gaze has to shift, not necessarily to men, but to institutions that allow GBV to continue happening.

Allyship, for me, is about institutions taking responsibility for ensuring that the right policies are in place and that there is relevant engagement and resourcing to ensure their correct implementation.  It is also about universities providing required support for studentpreneurs and students who come on campus.

Lastly, allyship is about people championing the standpoint “I am somebody who will not tolerate GBV; I will engage on, protect and support efforts aimed at reducing GBV in our society.”

Question: Dr Vilakazi, an important matter is being raised here. How do we address cultures and the different social roles they prescribe? What is happening at institutions concerning the support other genders need in fighting this nightmare?

Dr Vilakazi (right): It is a tricky but necessary question. The subject of all genders is troubling all universities, including us, around how we make sure that when we speak of GBV, we address it in the context of all genders. We have been struggling to integrate the experiences of transpeople in our residences and those who enrol with us to study. UWC has been seeking ways to respond to the needs of the transgender communities. We are making progress. As it stands, the gender section on the application forms now caters for non-binary people. We are also in conversation with the human resources department to develop a framework infrastructure that responds to the needs of other genders.

The Department of Higher Education and Training adopted a framework that compels universities to accommodate all genders when responding to issues of GBV. But treating GBV as a pandemic requires all of us. We must unite as staff and students and produce collaborative measures to deal with this scourge.

Question: Mahlodi, being qualified in a discipline unrelated to the platform you are developing, how would you encourage students across disciplines to engage one another and start enterprises that solve problems?

Ms Letsie: I would say that we should all remain curious to learn. With a background in humanities, I never thought I would develop a company centred around medical innovation and engineering (breakthroughs in artificial intelligence). We do not know how powerful our minds are unless we actively pursue knowledge and are open to learning from others. We live in such a beautiful time, where the digital realm has really interconnected us in ways we have not been before. This enables us to learn from one another in our diversity.

Furthermore, it gives us space to engage in dialogues that will not only breed business ideas that impact our society positively but also a space for us to discuss GBV.  

Our diverse backgrounds provide us with opportunities to devise innovate solutions for our societal challenges.

Choose your partners wisely

In her closing remarks, Dr Ngila said at the core of GBV is people’s choice of partners. “In my early 20s, my mentor told me that choosing a life partner would be one of the most critical decisions I would make in life. I want to advise, especially student women: ask difficult questions and ensure that you are empowering yourself economically to create an equal partnership.”

Nqobile Tembe is a communication Consultant at Universities South Africa. 

EDHE Lekgotla 2023 Articles