MAKERERE – An investigative report into Sexual Harassment at Makerere University has trashed some prepositions that the dress code of female students at the institution has propagated a fertile ground for sexual harassment, with the Committee warning the University against imposing new dressing policies.
Makerere University Vice Chancellor, Barnabas Nawangye constituted a Committee on March 2, 2018 to investigate sexual harassment at the University, with the final report unveiled today at the University.
In its terms of reference, the Committee was required to investigate the causes of increasing cases of sexual harassment at the university, review the Makerere University Policy and Regulations Against Sexual Harassment and make recommendations for its improvement.
The constitution of the Committee followed repeated media reports of sexual harassment at Makerere University with outrage directed at Makerere for being the oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning in the country.
The five-member Committee led by Professor Sylvia Tamale (Former Dean, School of Law) also comprised of Associate Professor Consolata Kabonesa (Former Dean, School of Women and Gender Studies), Associate Professor Christopher Mbazira (Ag. Principal, School of Law), Associate Professor Betty Ezati (Dean, School of Education) and Associate Professor Aaron Mushengyezi (Dean, School of Languages, Literature and Communication).
According to the Committee, the issue of women’s clothing featured prominently among the causes of sexual harassment highlighted by male and female stakeholders.
In its investigation, the Committee revealed that the issue was analysed to establish if there is a causal relationship between what women wear and the phenomenon of sexual harassment, with the report highlighting that the issue is not new and many studies have been conducted to establish its veracity.
Among the questions that the issue raised; Do some women’s dress styles invite sexual abuse? Are women who cover their bodies in long dresses sexually abused? Does a woman’s “No” count for anything regardless of how she is dressed?
The other questions the subject raised; Is it possible to separate sexual desire from coercive actions? How do we balance “sexual provocation” and women’s freedom to dress as they please? Do women who dress “provocatively” buy into their own “objectification”? Does the focus on women’s clothing amount to victim-blaming?
Additionally, the investigative team also raised more questions; Would a man be compelled to cover his lips if women found them “sexually provocative”?
The report noted that in traditional Ugandan societies, men generally exercise social dominance over women and such dominance extends to sexuality with most men feeling an unquestioned entitlement to women’s bodies.
“Some men who want to “satiate” their sexual desires at will use this sense of “entitlement” as an “enabler” for their behavior,” the report read in part.
The Committee blamed the media, religion, education and culture as some of the institutions that play a big role in depicting women’s bodies as sexualized objects that must be covered in order to avoid violation.
The Committee wondered why these institutions do not transmit similar messages about men’s bodies or dressing, saying this notion has led society to reduce a woman to her body parts and pushes her humanity to the margins.
The report stated that this belief has placed the responsibility to prevent sexual harassment and assaults squarely on a woman, which makes it hard for Makerere University to impose a dress code because it is a secular university based on religious values.
The study revealed that sexual harassment occurred to women regardless of the length and width of their skirts, with the team arguing that sexual arousal is a phenomenon common to males and females and dress may be one of the many potential practices that titillate the human senses.
Nevertheless, the Committee cautioned that issues of arousal and provocation should be distinguished from and never be confused with matters of sexual coercion and abuse.
The Committee argued that a female student who is coerced into trading sexual favours for passing an examination experiences threats to her academic survival that do not apply to anyone experiencing sexual arousal or discomfort when looking at women’s bodies or their dress.
The Committee rejected the argument of dress code stating that the majority of harassers sit in positions of authority over their victims, something they say speaks to the real problem here—that is, using women’s dressing to justify the abuse of power.
“The Committee therefore concluded that women’s clothing is not the cause of sexual harassment or abuse. The Committee also rejected the imposition of a university dress code for students and staff because research studies show that socially-sanctioned “decency” dress codes have a controlling effect, violate human rights and liberties, and are an ineffective way to combat sexual harassment,” as highlighted in the report.