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South African Students Fight Fee Hike, Racism & Now Live Ammunition #WitsFeesWILLFall!

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By Sona Mahendra:

Early last week, one of the premier academic institutions in the African continent, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) witnessed a massive student body protest against it. The goals were to stage sit-ins and disrupt the everyday functioning of the University, making it ultimately ungovernable. This was done to fight the enormous fee increases that Wits proposed weeks earlier. This fee hike entailed the following: 10.5% increase on overall fees, 6% increase in the upfront payment, 9.4% increase in residence fees and a 10.7% increase in International student fees, all for the following year.

Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg. Image source: Wikipedia

The Student Representative Council (SRC) recognised the burden that this increment would have on students, particularly on poor students, and thus organised a march/sit-in at all the entrances on the main campus last week Wednesday. This meant that no persons were able to get into or out of campus. Instead of quickly engaging with the protesters to hear their grievances, Wits Management opted to discard them as a ‘minority’ who were purposefully causing chaos on the premises. This only further fueled the anger and frustration of the students and the numbers supporting the protest grew to thousands.

During the course of the week, the students of other affiliated campuses (medical and education schools) joined the main campus where the students decided to occupy the main office building, Senate House, to garner attention for their cause. They insisted that no fee increases be applied for 2016 and demanded that the University Council, the main decision-making body of Wits, along with the Vice Chancellor, engage with them directly at Senate House. Even though the Council initially avoided the confrontation with the students, they succumbed to the pressure placed on them and elected to engage with the protesters late Friday evening.

The meeting between the two parties ran through the night and a statement was released in the early hours of the following morning that all the proposed fee increases would be suspended temporarily. Included in this historic victory was the promise by Council to address the student body at large the following Monday in a University Assembly where it would put forward new propositions with regards to this issue.

However, on Monday, because of poor communication between the Council and SRC on the venue of the Assembly, this meeting did not happen as neither party was willing to meet the other at their respective venues. Hence, students continued protesting on campus and at different parts of the day, the strike action even spilled onto the streets

Currently, Senate House is still under occupation and all academic activities on campus has been suspended till the following Monday. Also, in an unprecedented scenario (or maybe not) these student protests have spread to universities in other parts of the country (e.g. University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria, University of Fort Hare and many other colleges), all fighting similar exorbitant fee increases that have been applied to their institutions for 2016.

Tertiary education fees are already at their highest since 1994, with education costs outstripping inflation even. The cost of being a Wits scholar can range, depending on your degree choice, from somewhere around R 30,000 to R 60, 000 per annum (Rupees 140,000 – 300,000). If the duration of a general undergraduate degree is 3 years, one can expect to cough up about R150 000 before graduation day.

And all this before the proposed fee increase is taken into account.

A majority of students at Wits already depend on some form of financial aid and this is indicative of the fact a lack of funds for education is a frightening reality for many students. Also, almost 75% of the Wits student population is black, a community that has been maimed by the country’s racist past. Within this group, many black students still are facing the everyday challenges of poverty, some of them even residing in libraries secretly because of being unable to afford residence fees. Their one way to lift themselves and their families out of poverty is with the help of a tertiary qualification. However, the near-impossible fees being demanded of them only pushes them further away from a better reality. Hence, this fee increase not only is a financial burden to many, it will also continue to perpetuate the socio-economic inequality already present in the country.

The reasons provided for this increase by management are numerous: inflation, reduced subsidy from government, increase in prices of utilities etc. However, it is extremely unfair to place this entire burden on students alone, whose attainment of a degree is also cited as necessary to better the overall economy of South Africa. Other significant role players in the private sector, public sector and government have to participate in order to make tertiary education available to all who live in it.

The student protests have had to deal with many challenges this past week. Police have been called to physically remove students. Live ammunition has been brought onto campus. Tear gas has been used on protesters. Privileged students, citing the protests as an inconvenience to their academic activities, have decried the strike action. Racism from non-participating students has been rife. Sexism towards the female leadership from participating students has been present.

Regardless of all this, the student protests are pressing forward to fight for their right to access tertiary institutions. The youth of this country remain determined that they can pressurize government to heed their call and address the under-funding of universities. This student movement has evolved to become more inter-sectional: It is fighting patriarchy, racism and poverty at the same time and so deserves our unconditional support. While the students are united in their cause to fight the inequalities of the past and the injustices of the present, everyone waits with baited breath to see the outcome of this student revolution, our ‘student spring’.

In the meantime, A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues).

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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