Yes to Unisex?

The panelists: Mary Hames, a Rhodes Transformation representative and Desiree Wicks.

The panelists: Mary Hames, a Rhodes Transformation representative and Desiree Wicks.

by Sihle Jack

How do you feel about gender-inclusive university residences? Gender-inclusive, meaning that every residence would be open to males, females, intersex students and every other sexuality and gender one can identify with.

I had the privilege of attending the Gendered Spaces in Higher Education Institutions talk with panelists Desiree Wicks and guest speaker Ms Mary Hames of the University of the Western Cape. I had not really given this question a lot of thought but after the talk and hearing different people’s opinions I am now more confused than ever.

The talk was an incredible one as it sparked conversation between the attendees and left them with something to think about. One of those things was that as wonderful as a completely neutral residence would be, mixing men and women in residences is often when violence – especially violence against women – increases.  Hames shared an anecdote of how at another university the residence structure was changed from single-sex residences to unisex residences. She said that this was more of a trial run to see whether or not such conventions work. In order to see this, when it came to giving out rooms at the start of the year, they placed a female student next to every male designated room.  From this “trial” it was seen that violence greatly increased in the mixed residence.

See, universities are just micro versions of society. South Africa is a very violent country -something which I do not think we should ever pride ourselves in. But what is it that makes us so violent, especially at places of learning and places where we are meant to be building each other up?

Just as Hames left her audience with questions, I think I will also leave you with questions to answer.

While that was one of her focuses, Hames also spoke about the role of females in the higher learning institutions. Her main point of concern being that there is no “space” for females in these institutions.

A quick history lesson: In the past only white males had the opportunity to go to university and nowadays everyone can go! We have moved forward alright, but not 100%. There’s still a lot more that can be done about the bridge between women and men academics.

“These institutions force women to postpone their reproductive rights,” said Hames. She gave an example of a pregnant student who gets leave after giving birth, but asked what rights to leave the father of the baby was able to get. Paternity leave for these males is something which needs to be looked at, she reiterated.  “How is it okay that females get to go on leave and put their studies on hold, while their male counterparts continue with school?” she asked.

Another inequality she hopes to have addressed was shared in a story of how while driving onto the campus of a Western Cape university, she saw a poster promoting breastfeeding. Her question was: We see these posters at universities and malls but are there actual spaces for women to do this? Also, why do we stare at these women who feel comfortable enough to exercise their reproductive and biological rights?

Now that both Hames and I have left you with questions to think about, engage with others on these issues especially the residence one.

But before you do, hear what some female Rhodents have to say about unisex residences.




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