On June 19, 2020, Zuhura Yunus, the first woman presenter on BBC Swahili, hosted an in-depth discussion about sextortion in Tanzanian higher education on her independent Swahili talk show, “Zoom With Zu,” broadcast on YouTube. Yunus highlights a renewed national debate on sexual harassment in the country’s higher education institutions—sparked by Dr. Vicensia Shule’s controversial tweet in late 2018 about the ubiquity of sexual extortion (shortened to sextortion in Tanzania) at the University of Dar es Salaam.
In the episode, four invited guests—including Shule and Muhidin Shangwe, both academics from the University of Dar es Salaam—reflect on what social forces contribute to the problem of sextortion perpetrated by lecturers against students, why existing policies are not working, and what steps universities should take to address the problem.
In the context of Tanzanian higher education, sextortion occurs when lecturers and other university staff members take advantage of unequal power relations to extort sexual favors, usually from students. On “Zoom with Zu,” Shule describes the problem as rooted in the patriarchal structure inherent in the University of Dar es Salaam and Tanzanian universities more broadly, which reflects societal power relations. She emphasizes that a steadily increasing number of women in leadership positions does not automatically transform a patriarchal structure: “When women enter positions of authority, that authority was created and shaped by patriarchal forces. And, so, they often turn out to be a part of that system, they become the executors of that system.”
Dr. Muhidin Shangwe and Shule lament that within the patriarchal structure of Tanzanian higher education, there are some men in positions of authority who are actively looking to exploit vulnerable students. Shule explains, “What is really a big issue here is that a man looks for a student that he perceives as vulnerable either because of a problem with money or who is perhaps at risk of failing a class.”
An intense familial pressure to succeed leads some students—especially low-income women students—to participate in sextortion. “There is so much pressure that comes from the family. You’ve come from a family that has little economic means, and you’re expected to return home with a degree and a job,” says Shule. “It is often the case that students who see themselves as at risk of failing use this opportunity … they must look for an alternative option in order to survive.”
Sextortion is a form of sexual abuse, insists Shule. “You can’t say that sextortion and sexual assault are two different things…because sextortion is done without consent as well as through deception or fraud.” Shule and Shangwe explain that the problem is not with the written policies that are in place to address sexual abuse in higher education—“We’ve done a really good job of putting in place laws and procedures,” says Shangwe—rather that existing policies are not implemented. One issue is a general lack of awareness among students about what constitutes sexual abuse and how to report it. The University of Dar es Salaam has a program for first-year students to raise awareness about the issue of sexual harassment and abuse, says Shangwe, but “it only takes place for the first week of classes, and many students never get a chance to participate in it before it’s done.
Another issue is that when students do report sextortion, they often face hostility from the people within reporting mechanisms and structures. Shangwe cites victim shaming as a common form of hostility students face when they report sexual abuse: “You may say something and then be told, “But it was you who dressed provocatively, why did you dress like that?” Furthermore, the university is structured to protect the interests of faculty over the wellbeing of students when it comes to sexual abuse, which dissuades students from reporting and enables the problem to continue. Shule explains:
Remember that the men who engage in such behavior here have a huge network, like [Shangwe] said. Perpetrators have structural support. They tell each other, ‘We can’t get rid of our colleague, that’s a person with a PhD, a full professor who can’t be expelled from his work because of a girl like this.’ They reassure each other in their network that it’s a system for protecting each other’s interests…When you report or give evidence, the system just victimizes you even more.
Shangwe and Shule insist that the goal moving forward should be to make sure existing policies are properly implemented. Encouraging students to report and creating a safer environment for reporting would help to ensure accountability. “We have not put in place friendly structures that actually encourage victims to come forward and demand accountability. Changing this would improve things,” says Shangwe.
Shule and Shangwe both argue that there should be more transparency in case outcomes. When students report cases of sextortion, they are often frustrated that “no information has been shared about what measures have been taken, which is an issue of communication,” says Shangwe. Shule reiterates, “We have to receive the results of these cases.”
Shule additionally calls for universities to allow “independent bodies—that operate separately from our universities—to offer external assessments of the problem of sextortion in universities.” When Shule herself sought to explore student perceptions of sextortion on campus, the university was quick to shut her down: “Because of this, it’s clear that there is something being hidden by the system.”
Shule sees the issue of “sextortion” as inextricable from corruption more broadly. Like other forms of corruption, it is often the result of economic and power inequities and involves a deceptive or fraudulent economic exchange. “The chief inspector of the government should work closely with the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau (PCCB) to make sure that the government money flowing into our universities isn’t enabling sextortion,” says Shule.
Ten days after the “Zoom with Zu” episode about sextortion was aired, the Swahili Times reported on Twitter that St. Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT) in Mwanza had dismissed three lecturers for their involvement in sextortion. In a public press statement, the university condemned sextortion and encouraged students to continue coming forward.
While SAUT’s public denunciation of sextortion and dismissal of three lecturers is a start, universities, in their efforts to ensure systemic change, must also try to understand and address the underlying social, economic, and political forces that enable sextortion. As Shule reminds us, “We are confronting a structure that is deeply rooted. We can only dismantle the structure by digging up the roots.”