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The Gender Equity Unit helps struggling students

The Gender Equity Unit helps struggling students

Food insecurity amongst university students motivated Mary Hames, Director at the University of the Western Cape’s Gender Equity Unit (GEU), and staff, to start a food programme back in 2007.

“Over the years we have found that students often enter a period of crisis, because most bursaries and sponsors pay for the tuition fees, textbooks and accommodation, but not for food. This is a problem because a large number of our students are from outside the Western Cape,” she added.

According to the World Health Organisation report of 2014, food insecurity has emerged as a global crisis, and because our universities are a reflection of society the GEU came up with a plan to try and help struggling students by giving them non-perishable foods and essentials such as soap, toothpaste and sanitary towels.

The Gender Equity Unit houses a total of 6 programmes, namely; Loud Enuf (Sexual orientation and gender identity), Edu-drama (theatre programme against violence against women), Human nature (Persons with disabilities), mentoring programme, Imbewu (newsletter) and the food programme - all with a staff of four and a few student volunteers.

Student project, Limpho Makapela, said the food programme aims to create awareness around the issue of food insecurity on campus, “We are not a hand-out but a hand-up, in the sense that we want to promote generosity. We as the Gender Equity Unit feel the entire campus community needs to come together and address a common issue on campus.

“We do have referrals, like from the Centre for Student Support Services (CSSS), and the Student Representative Council (SRC), but there is a lot that needs to be done around the issue of food on our campus,” she said.

She also added by saying: “We want to create awareness around food insecurity on campus as some students attend lectures on an empty stomach and struggle to concentrate in the class”.

The food programme is a short-term solution and relies solely on donations from staff members and students. The Edu-drama theatre production has benefited the food programme a great deal. Instead of paying to watch the production, audience members are asked to bring an extra packet of noodles, toothpaste or an extra packet of pads.

Mary Hames says her wakeup call on food insecurity came 10 years ago when she was called by some of the staff members at GEU who told her that there was someone dying in her office, “I saw a very skinny girl on the couch. I found out that she had been taking Tuberculosis treatment on an empty stomach, and as a result of that she was so skinny.

“Every morning we made sure that she had something to eat, and again after her lectures, so that she could take her treatment. Due to word of mouth we had a number of students coming in asking for food, and since then we have been very much aware of the issue of food insecurity at our campus.

“Almost ten years later we still have a food programme. We have boxes around campus for the drop-off of non-perishable foods, and that is how we are asking staff members to get involved and help support the students.”

The unit has appointed a food task team which will manage the food programme going forward, looking closely at the needs of students and beneficiaries, and managing donations.

The programme does not have a large capacity, “Students come to us maybe once or twice a year for food. Help from other departments would help us a great deal, especially now that we have branched out into providing sanitary pads, soap and other basic necessities.

“Every year we take students involved in the Edu-drama production to the Grahamstown National Arts festival, and there we see big dining halls where students are fed with enough food for everyone. As a university we need to look at ways of addressing the issue of food insecurity because most of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they need our help more than we could ever imagine.”

Mary Hames concluded by saying that in their act of giving, they treat people with dignity and respect, “Because we don’t have a lot ourselves, we don’t go around making announcements about the programme. Instead, students come to us.”

Staff members and students are encouraged to donate by making drop-offs at the Gender Equity Unit.