The recent revelation that at least 74 percent of female students in tertiary institutions have been subjected to sexual harassment by male staffers at campuses throughout Zimbabwe is shocking and is a blot on the country's efforts to promote the girl child.
The statistics were revealed by the Female Students Network Trust while giving oral evidence before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Women's Affairs, Gender and Community Development chaired by Beata Nyamupinga.
Like most social constructs, sexual harassment is not easy to define, nor does it involve a homogeneous set of behaviours.
Usually, the interpretation of sexual harassment depends on the context.
In this case, the Trust defines sexual harassment as unwanted physical contact like touching, patting and hugging by lecturers, non-academic staff and students.
Rape and forced unprotected sex is also categorised as sexual harassment,
If the statistics from the baseline survey are a true reflection of what is happening in the tertiary institutions, the trend is worrisome and should be addressed before it becomes entrenched in the country's education system and society as a whole.
The offloading of the statistics on the public domain reignites the debate on how big the problem of sexual abuse in tertiary institutions is, after earlier attempts to engage authorities over the issue, hit a brick wall.
Rather than address the symptomatic problems of sexual abuse in tertiary institutions a few years ago, female students were instead accused of engaging in prostitution for financial benefits and "other favours".
The revelation that tertiary institutions are no longer ivory towers of education, but have become arenas for sexual victimisation comes at a time when Government has been working on increasing the number of female students in tertiary institutions, pegged at 40 percent.
During the presentation, the Trust highlighted that male staff in universities were actually taking advantage of female students' impoverished status, to abuse the hapless and impressionable ladies.
The legislators heard that some of the female students were being sexually abused in return for higher marks, access to the campus and food.
Representatives of the Trust also revealed that male lecturers were not ashamed of the practice and actually viewed sex with female students as part of their supplementary job benefits.
For many years, universities and colleges have been battling with problems of sexual harassment of female students by outsiders and other students.
The latest revelation which fingers male lecturers as part of the syndicate of perpetrators of these heinous acts puts the education systems and its structures under scrutiny.
It becomes a cause for concern when male lecturers are among sexual predators being fingered in sexual assault of the very same they should be protecting.
Apart from imparting knowledge, male lecturers - like any staffers - have a moral obligation over the welfare of these young girls.
Their participation in such sexual coercions puts their credibility and academic capability under scrutiny when they reward incompetent students in exchange for sex.
They are also ruining these students' futures because they might fall pregnant or worse still contract HIV and a coterie of other sexually transmitted infections.
For the male lecturers to abandon their gate-keeping mandate of ensuring good academic standards is a betrayal to the Zimbabwe education system, which for long has been regarded as one of the best in the region.
The damage that male lectures are doing is irreparable and even extends to the industry, where these not so bright students are then offloaded on the job market, while in possession of "good passes" which they got after trading sexual favours.
What is more worrying is that the whole education system and even the non-teaching staff are part of the syndicate of male predators, who are wantonly abusing female students.
Security guards, who should be protecting the female students from abuse, have also been fingered among the non-academic staff as brutalising and groping the very same they should be protecting.
It becomes a matter of concern for parents and institutions mandated in superintending over the students that sexual predators from within the very same academic institutions are preying on the flock they should be shepherding.
A snap survey that I carried out among female university students revealed that sexual abuse was rife in different institutions, but students were afraid to come out in the open for fear of victimisation.
The students highlighted that victims of sexual abuse did not usually report for fear of jeopardising their academic careers, since part of their coursework constituted a good percentage of the final examination.
Worse still, they felt that there was nothing as humiliating as being labelled as "that girl who told everyone", especially if they were to remain at the same institution where the abuse took place.
It was even worse, when the abuser remained with the same institution, and remained unpunished for fear of bringing "unwarranted attention" on the institutions.
Because tertiary institutions are characterised by asymmetrical power relations and a gendered hierarchical structure, female students find it difficult to report sexual abuse to a head of department who is usually a man.
Sometimes female students fail to report because they are then accused of dressing inappropriately.
However, concerns have also raised on the sampling technique that was used, with some saying it might have be flawed, and the figures could have been exaggerated to solicit public sympathy over the problem.
With an earlier baseline survey carried out last year that was later dismissed, which said 70 percent of students from a particular university tested positive for HIV, others feel that the figures from the Female Students' Network Trust are meant to cause alarm and despondency, among students and tertiary institutions.
Whatever the case might be, it does not lessen the gravity of the matter, and neither does it wish away the problem of sexual abuse of mainly female students in tertiary institutions.
It appears institutions have failed to put systems in place to ensure that students are protected from the sexual predators that are within the institution's structures.
Any attempts by colleges and universities to address issues of sexual harassment must take a holistic approach to the problem.
This would require more than a general policy of sexual harassment programme, but it would require efforts and support of the campus administration, faculty, employees and students.
It would also require continual training of all members of the university and encourage a procedure that encourages, not merely allows, complaints.
Proper disciplinary measures would need to be instituted to gain students' confidence. Tertiary institutions should not allow abuse to continue to such an extent that sexual harassment becomes "normalised, generalised" and becomes acceptable as "part of the culture in academia".
- the herald