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Public Institutions And Instances of Sexual Harassment

By Parvin Sultana

03 September, 2015

Few days ago a news item in a popular local news channel caught my attention. A distinguished professor of a college who works also as the Co-ordinator of the IGNOU study centre made an indecent proposal to a student in exchange of high grades in assignments. The entire telephonic conversation between the Professor and the student was being played on the news channel. While the Professor misusing his office should be shamed but merely shaming him will not minimize the repeat of such offence.

What caught my attention was the utmost voyeuristic nature of the news item. It showed the girl from various angles, thankfully avoiding the face and kept on playing the sexually explicit parts of the telephonic conversation. What was missing however was the emphasis on the fact that sexual harassment is on an increase in public institutions and the absence of any mechanism to address such problems.

In our popular understanding educational institutions come second in terms of safer places for children after home. But in recent times the sad fact has come forward that children are not insulated from sexual abuse even in these supposedly safer places. In such a scenario, the responsibility of news media is to start a debate on the inherent limitations of institutions to tackle such problems and not limit to the concern of TRPs. The scenario does not change as we move to institutions of higher education.


While with education and employment women are slowly inching towards an equal world, they continue to face obstacles. Their access to public spaces continues to be limited. Sometimes it is by gendered physical infrastructure – like not enough toilets for women, absence of day care crèches for working mothers etc. Another limitation which curbs a woman’s capability is the violence in the form of sexual harassment that she faces in her work place and her educational institutions.

While the question of what comprises harassment was vague, it was in the context of the Vishakha Judgment of 1997 that a concrete definition of sexual harassment took shape. It included any unwelcome acts or behavior such as physical contact or advances, demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Such harassment was not limited to workplaces alone. Even in educational institutions, such abuses and misuse of positions have taken place. In fact it has become an everyday affair. Students may get sexually harassed by other students, members of non-teaching staff or teachers. Researchers may be harassed by their guides. Teachers may in turn be harassed by someone in a higher position. The hierarchy of power structures and the resultant harassment as seen in other institutions is often replicated in academic institutions as well. While campuses are supposed to be liberating spaces, women have felt constrained by instances of sexual harassment.

A brief look at the recent past will bring out an abundance of such cases where people of repute have misused their position in harassing others. Be it the case of Jadavpur University where the students accused the administration of trying to hush up a case of sexual harassment of a student by fellow students or the highly publicized case of R. K Pachauri, the Director General of the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) being accused of harassing an intern, the picture is grim for the victims of such harassment.

Feminists worked very hard to bring to notice the rampant cases of sexual harassment in institutions. Their concern was often dismissed. It was a result of a long drawn movement that saw the historic Vishakha judgment which laid down guidelines to be followed by establishments in dealing with complaints about sexual harassment. These guidelines were meant for the prevention and redressal of sexual harassment of women at workplaces in keeping with the principles of equality, freedom, life and liberty as enshrined in the Constitution.

In case of addressing sexual harassment, the responsibility of educational institutions is no less. Educational institutions in fact have dual responsibilities when it comes to prevention of sexual harassment. It is a learning place for students and a workplace for its staff. Institutions need to ensure that the teaching, learning and working environment of employees and students are free from sexual harassment.

But even after two decades of the Vishakha judgment, the scenario is grim. Sexual harassment in institutions continues to be rampant with a poor or no mechanism at all for addressing such abuses. While the Vishakha Judgment categorically laid down important mechanisms like having a proper complaints committee, special councilor or other support devices. Women should head the complaints committee, members from NGOs familiar with the issue of sexual harassment should be included. The procedure should be time bound and confidentiality should be maintained – there is a long way to go to stop sexual harassment in institutions.

Even The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 did not bring many changes. While it states that any institution with more than ten employees must implement it, there have been gross violations. Sadly many high profile incidents have also pointed out how employers have sidelined the bindings of this act.

While safety of women in public spaces continues to be debated and discussed by many, there is not much discussion on sexual harassment in educational institutions and campuses which are supposedly safer spaces. Lewd remarks, indecent gestures towards women tend to be normalized. The situation is worsened with the fact that there is not much awareness. There is no routine awareness campaign on sexual harassment and how to address it. Most victims are clueless and stigmatized while most employers and authorities in educational institutions are concerned with the reputation of the institution and try to hush up such cases. Students often cower back from reporting cases of sexual harassment fearing assaults on their academic careers and the insensitive handling of such cases.

Another reason behind a lukewarm response to a strong sexual harassment prevention act in workplaces is the misplaced fear of its misuse. Many co-workers and male students in the educational institutions fear the misuse of such acts to target people wrongly. This is not essentially true as Internal Complaints Committees are required to properly weigh relevant facts and exercise decision making skills while deciding cases. Confidentiality will also ensure that reputations of people are not sullied unnecessarily.

News media can play a constructive role by emphasizing the need of putting in place redressal mechanisms rather than merely doing sensational reporting of such cases. Employers and authorities in academic institutions must treat sexual harassment as a serious offence. Academic and working careers of women faces huge setback if such issues are dismissed lightly. True empowerment and gender equality is dependent on providing an atmosphere conducive to women both in the education and the employment sector.

Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in B N College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc.


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