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First-year female university residence students’ experiences and constructions of gender and sexuality in the context of gender-based violence in South Africa.

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Entering university for the first time is a major change for first-year female students at university, especially for those who live in university residences. There is increasing evidence of gender-based violence (GBV) on South African university campuses, although with little specific focus on first-year female students who reside in campus residences. Within this context, young women who come from different socio-cultural backgrounds have to negotiate their gender and sexuality constructions. This study explores first-year female university residence students’ experiences and constructions of gender and sexuality in the context of GBV. This study utilised a qualitative approach and an interpretive paradigm. The sample comprised 20 first-year female residence students, who were purposively chosen because they live in campus residences. The main data-generation methods used included focus group discussions, individual interviews, and a research diary. Data were analysed using thematic analysis. Social construction theories of gender and sexuality concepts such as gender and power, and sexual scripts and GBV were adopted to analyse the data. The findings show that first-year university female residence students experience and understand their freedom in complex ways that are both liberating and enslaving. They can freely explore their sexuality, wear whatever they want, go out anytime, and consume alcohol without any restrictions or rules. However, some first-year university female residence students find it challenging to manage such freedom, and they end up longing for the support and control of their homes. As first-year female students try to adapt to the new environment, they find themselves not making the most of the freedom provided at university because the kind of freedom that is provided is gendered; where men can date multiple women and female students are judged for simply befriending male students. First-year female residence students struggle to manage the cultural shift, since the culture at their home is often different from university culture. Under pressure to fit into the new culture at university, some first-year female students find themselves rejecting their previously held norms and adopting a new culture at university. Others struggle to fit in, and they often end up living a double life, where they wear clothes at university that are different from those that they wear at home. Other first-year female residence students reject the new culture and continue to uphold the norms that they learned at home. Many first-year female students conform to heterosexual norms and enter into relationships with men, where they usually take care of their partners by doing domestic chores. In these relationships, men are typically responsible for making most decisions and, in some cases, are the sole decision makers. First-year female students often use sex to strengthen a relationship; however, they are too shy to express their sexual desires in these relationships. The response to the newfound freedom is therefore often a reversion to the patterns of gendered subordination of their home environments. This study also found that first-year female students negotiate their gender and sexuality constructions within the context of gender, power, and violence at university. This study argues that within this new space, which is characterised by freedom and independence, the freedom of first-year students residing in university residences is constrained by prevailing GBV. Comprehensive approaches are required to create an enabling environment that addresses the transition into the university space and disrupt dominant heterosexist constructions of femininity and masculinity within which violence against women is normalised.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.