Beneath the Makerere sex-for-marks scandal lies power dynamics

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ARTHUR NKALUBO

It is incredibly brave for a female student to speak out against their accuser especially if their accuser is someone powerful.

But from the media reports concerning sexual harassment at Makerere university in which some lecturers were accused, one could clearly see some power dynamics at play.

The dynamics at play included those of the lecturer and student, and those between men and women. As is the case with social media, it was not hard to find many blaming the survivors.

Some said, the survivors “asked for it” and others put the blame on poor parenting. Same old arguments, right?  I personally don’t buy those arguments.

First, to suggest that the survivors in some way asked for the assaults, is simply a furtherance of the essentialists categorisation of women or women problems in our society.

Parenting too could be a subjugating factor when it comes to women issues. Of course, “good parenting” as term can be subjected to several interpretations.

But the traditional way of raising the girl-child is geared towards ensuring that the girl-child is submissive to a man. This also adds to the power dynamics of keeping the woman in an unfair position in society.

In many cases as in the above, the female student may feel trapped because of threats from the lecturer. In the media reports, the accusers vividly explained how they were lured into unwanted sexual acts by their lecturers using threats if they spoke out.

This is not the first time such accusations have surfaced from the same institution. It is the nightmare of every parent who sends their child to study at the university but only to learn of how their daughter was taken advantage of by someone in a powerful position.

To the survivor, it takes a lot of guts to speak out against the accused. Even harder, to narrate their ordeal before any third party or even to their own parents because of stigma.

Research suggests that for some, having power tends to decrease the mental capacities of those in power to contemplate their behaviours over others. A lecturer sexually assaulting a student is a clear example of how power can be disconnecting in society. Even so, it is a clear misuse of power.

It is even worse when there are several accusers as in the case of a lecturer subject to investigation. I must stress however, that most of the lecturers act professionally and strive for most part of their careers to educate many Ugandans who in turn benefit the country.

The real impact of sexual assaults on the survivors should not be under estimated as those affected have to live with the consequences.

It takes someone brave because, the accused as a lecturer, is someone in a power position as opposed to the survivor who is a student as in this case. The power lies with the lecturer who has a secure job. It is he who has the key to the student´s success or the key for the students acquiring a job in the future.

The lecturer too, being the expert who imparts his knowledge to the student puts the student in a more unfair power position.

We also live in a society where everything is steered through androcentric eyes where the man, at least culturally is given special preference to a woman.

If a woman reports sexual abuse, they are more likely to be blamed more than the accused. At least as the case with one of the interviewees in one of the reports and also judging by some social media posts.

The fact that the abused faces a trial by public or some sections of the media, attests to the power dynamics from a societal perspective. No co-incidence however, that all the survivors alleging sexual abuse were female in the reports. This all comes down to one thing, power.

Power misused to exploit one in an unfair position. But other factors could through intersectionality play a part in this like gender, culture and identity.

Due to power disparities between the survivors and the accused persons, it makes it hard for the survivors to report abuse to the authorities because of stigma.  For the survivors, co-operation with the authorities might not be easy not with court either for fear of facing their accusers.

Court documents are public documents that can easily be accessed by anyone so, there could be a risk of compromising the survivor´s identities.

The hegemonic masculinity of our society ensures that sexual misconduct goes on unabated.  The solutions however are never very far from us.

Campaigns like #ME TOO cannot bring this to an end, but they could help highlight this problem.

Such campaigns could help change the way we think about sexual assault and could challenge some of these power dynamics.

As a society, problems affecting women should be given the same weight as any other problem affecting the society.

Open debates concerning sexual harassment in higher institutions of learning focusing on differentiating between what is okay and when one over-steps the boundaries should be frequent.

Ultimately, sexual misconduct at higher institutions of learning could be ended through an education that calls on one to challenge social structures like power or gender roles in society.

The writer is an advocate and a human rights lawyer. He can be reached at arthurnkalubo50@gmail.com

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