Is sexual harassment in Universities and colleges disconnected incidents or a widespread systemic problem?
Is sexual harassment in Universities and colleges disconnected incidents or a widespread systemic problem?
Are sexual harassment incidents in Universities and colleges disconnected incidents or symptom of a widespread systemic problem?

How long can you keep something like this under the wraps in the age of internet?

Sexual harassment in educational institutions, based on newspaper reports, is an everyday affair. Students may get sexually harassed by other students, members of non-teaching staff or teachers. Researchers can be harassed by their guides and teachers are as often harassed by other teachers or others in high places. The usual power structures and dynamics of sexual harassment that are seen at all other workplaces also manifest themselves in educational institutions.

However, these unique organizations are vulnerable at a whole different level. Colleges and educational institutes are not just places where classes take place. They are also symbols of pride, association and nostalgia. One’s fortune in career is often linked to the prestige of the places where they were educated. There is a constant influx of thousands of people, and people are leaving it every year. As a result, demographics change drastically every year in these institutions. They have their own cultures, decades old rituals and campus environments shaped by the individuals studying there at any point of time. It is way easier to stop or even talk about sexual harassment in a corporate campus as opposed to a college campus.

Recent news of sexual harassment in educational institutions

My alma mater was rocked by allegations of sexual harassments – that of a member of the non-teaching staff by another. Then two students alleged that they were sexually harassed by sitting Supreme Court judgments in course of their internships which was arranged by the University.

2014 was marked by Jadavpur University students protesting and eventually going on a hunger strike over alleged sexual harassment of a student by other students, which they claimed the Vice Chancellor was trying to hush up. The VC had to eventually resign in face of hunger strike by students.

Over 71% of girl students of Punjab University who participated in a survey said that they have faced sexual harassment, according to a report on ToI on March 5, 2015.

An unofficial safety audit reported in Times of India on March 8 found that students don’t consider Delhi University’s North Campus a very safe place.

A professor of Sambalpur University was arrested on March 9 for allegedly sexually harassing and assaulting a PhD scholar inside the law department.

These stories continue to hit the mainstream media even as the highly publicized case of R K Pachauri, Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), who was accused of sexually harassing an intern, is yet to phase out of the media. This happened pretty much within an educational institution, no less than one as prestigious as TERI.

In another shocking incident last month, the executive council of Delhi University sacked professor Sapna Jain, who alleged sexual harassment by vice-chancellor Dinesh Singh, ex-registrar Alka Sharma and her colleagues in the mathematics department.

I could go on and on. However, all it would take is a Google search for anyone to find out that sexual harassment is very much a burning issue all over India in all sorts of educational institutes, in cities, villages and towns.

Where are the academicians and where is the debate?

Surprisingly, rampant sexual harassment in our campuses is not a matter being debated as much as one would think it should be or might be. There is almost no one talking about it in the media or even the world of academics – which I find to be shocking to say the least. While the academics and social activists have gone on to beat war drums on the establishment on the issue of gender justice, safety of women and even sexual harassment over the last decade, and especially the last few years – the zeal seems to be missing when it comes to freeing our campuses from sexual harassment. None of the high profile sexual harassment cases or the passing of a sexual harassment law that equally applies to educational institutions have made a difference.

Number of people willing to go public or report a sexual harassment case they face in college or University may have increased, but we can only speculate on all those who will never report sexual harassment for all sorts of reasons.

Yes, people do talk for a few days when the news cycle picks up a story and makes a hero or villain out of a person. However, so far it seems the debate around sexual harassment in our places of education has been limited to discussing whether a person is guilty or not, and whether he or she should be sacked, suspended or sent to jail. The quality of debate has been terrible to say the least, and no wonder that there has been little institutional reforms or creativity to solve an issue that affect such a large number of stakeholders.

Well, why is there hardly any debate about the sexual harassment that take place every day in India’s educational institutes – schools, colleges and Universities? Why do we tolerate absence of gender justice in the places where we get educated? Why are our otherwise vocal academicians not kicking up a storm over this issue? Whereas foreign Universities are going to great lengths to counter the “lad culture” and introducing systemic changes, Indian Universities are behaving like ostriches – trying to sweep things under the carpet.

Why isn’t stopping sexual harassment a top priority in our campuses? And why aren’t even the students, who are probably the largest affected group, not talking about the problem as much as, let’s say the Jadavpur University students did? Why are the women on Indian campuses keeping quiet, if they do feel unsafe everyday – like those who participated in the audit of safety of women in the Delhi University North Campus?

I don’t have all the answers to this question and I will not pretend that I have done all the research needed to answer it. I, however, wish that you will consider a few things that maybe coming in the way of addressing sexual harassment in a fitting way though a very large number of students continue to suffer (consider the 71% from Punjab University survey). It is important we look at the system rather than writing off such widespread sexual harassment as isolated problems created by a handful of bad guys.

Repercussions on career after alleging sexual harassment can be serious

As can be seen from the DU case, where the executive council sacked a professor who complained of sexual harassment against the Vice Chancellor even while her complaint of pending investigation and hearing, consequences for complaining can be serious. Even the student from National University of Juridical Sciences who complained against Justice Ganguly, had mentioned in her blogpost that she could find courage to indict the very powerful judge because she was employed with an NGO that was supportive of her stance. Not every victim of sexual harassment is equally fortunate. They often have to consider what impact a public showdown or a complaint may have on their career. Clearly quite a few people occupying powerful positions in the academia have a penchant for sexual harassment as number of allegations against such people is to be taken as an indication. This is the space where a lot can be done to improve the system, to protect victims who blow the whistle on powerful people who think they are beyond the law and may be able to get away using their influence.

For instance, you can easily check if your institution or organization is compliant with sexual harassment using this checklist, but if you find out that it is not – will you risk belling the cat by raising your concerns about it?

Small incidents, in small increments and large numbers: how many will one complain about

Outright sexual assault is one thing, but sexual harassment in campus can take various forms. For instance, insulting women over their looks, attractiveness, clothes or physical attributes can be sexual harassment. Incidents of passing of comments, gestures and staring can be by definition sexual harassment – and above mentioned reports from Punjab University and Delhi University suggests that these are frequent occurrences in Indian campuses.

The problem with the formal complaint and hearing based dispute resolution system around sexual harassment is that it takes a lot of energy and effort on part of the complainant to establish sexual harassment. In case of harassments that are faced routinely – like passing of lewd comments and gestures by strangers – victims often choose not to take action. How many people will they take action against? How many productive hours will they waste collecting and producing evidence before a committee, or appear for hearings after hearings? They preserve the option to file a complaint as a matter of last resort for extreme cases, and choose to ignore and live with the rest where they can manage, even at the cost of self-respect and dignity.

A lot can be done on this front by the establishment as well. It is important to recognize that the institutions duty to ensure safety and dignity of women on the campus does not end with setting up an internal complaint committee where women can lodge complaints and get heard. It is also necessary to proactively create an environment where women feel safe and appreciated, rather than being at the receiving end of unpleasant and lewd comments or other forms of indirect harassment.

Lack of awareness amongst students and faculty

Forget proper sensitization, the Universities do not even bother to ensure routine awareness campaigns about sexual harassments. There is little planning or professional involvement, or even engagement of the top leadership to create a sensitized University environment where women feel safe, and men feel responsible to ensure this. As reported in the above Times of India report, 2 out of 3 Delhi University students had no clue about the sexual harassment laws. In Punjab University, a majority of students surveyed did not know about the existence of a sexual harassment committee where they can take their complaints. This indicate that a basic requirement under the 2013 enactment is either being completely ignored by Universities, or they are doing ineffective compliances by ticking boxes, and achieving none of the intended results.

Proper sensitization has proven to be time and again a powerful tool to stop sexual harassment. This is why it has been made a mandatory requirement under the law. Every workplace in the country with 10 or more employees are required to comply to this requirement of sensitization. However, Universities have mostly made a mockery of sensitization. An University I visited recently dealt with this by getting students to put up a few posters against sexual harassment in their canteen area. This was meant to substitute professional intervention to sensitize thousands of students and faculties on the campus through townhalls and focussed group discussions.

We are scared to wake up the disciplinarian ogres and right wing fundamentalists

How do vast majority of Indians respond to threat to the women they care about? Stop them from venturing out and deny them freedom. This is supposed to protect them.

Have you heard any of these things ever?

Don’t go to college, it is not safe.

Let’s put in place a curfew – from now you cannot step out after dark.

You cannot wear those dresses anymore.

Let’s stop men and women from studying in the same college.

This happens when girls and boys party together.

All these things are happening because we are going against Indian culture.

People actually say these things. They want to curb the hard earned freedom of women rather than finding solutions to the real problems. Openly discussing about sexual harassment problem of our campuses is bound to draw these people to the debate like zombies to the Halloween party. A vast majority of the young Indians in campuses don’t want to attract the wrath of these people, and would prefer to keep things under the radar.

This will bring a bad name to our hallowed institution

It is not funny how many times things are swept under the carpet using this excuse. People do buy into this as well – because they have invested their lives, dreams and often a lot of money into getting a degree. What is the point of bringing bad name, bad press to that degree or the institution that is giving it? Even if a rebel wants to follow a cause, the other students will be quick to explain the betrayal of this action. Everything is great with our college – this is the message that should go out anyway! This attitude is a big barrier on the way to tackle sexual harassment in Indian campuses.

Way forward

It is an urgent need to start open and transparent debate in our educational institutions. Sensitization of students and staff is an urgent necessity. Everyone needs to be made aware of the steps that can be taken if sexual harassment takes place, and a robust system rather than stopgap compliance measures need to be put in place. It is important to break the silence, and to bring in competent professionals with prior experience to deal with campus harassment specifically. It is not always necessary that the institution or the authorities will do the right thing – but even the students can get the ball rolling, because status quo in this matter is not at all acceptable!

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