Drawing from years of experience in dealing with cases associated with sexual harassment in higher education institutes, Preeti Karmarkar examines the various challenges faced in the implementation of the existing guidelines.
I have been working in the field of social development for more than twenty years. I am associated with the Pune-based organization ‘Nari Samata Manch’ which works on the issues of violence against women. I have been working on the issue of sexual harassment of women at workplace since the times of Vishakha guidelines. I work as an external member in the internal committees at a few workplaces in Pune including higher education institutes, government as well as corporate workplaces. All these years, I have been engaging in creating awareness on the law related to sexual harassment at workplace. Much of what I have to say below is based on my personal experiences in dealing with these issues over the last two decades.
The Vishakha guidelines came in 1997 and later the law was enacted in 2013, but the issue of sexual harassment at workplace really came into debate with the ‘Me Too movement’. Soon the silence on sexual harassment in academia was broken with a google spreadsheet created by an Indian law student (now in US). The list consisted of the names of persons in both Indian and foreign universities accused of sexual harassment. This created a storm of debate in academia. The list was condemned by many, as the claims were unverified. The female student who floated the list justified her act. She wanted to alert female students about the abusers because nothing happened even when the complaints were raised many times in some of the cases. What was the response of concerned universities to this ‘Name and Shame list’? Unfortunately only a handful of institutions/universities took cognizance of this, conducted inquiries and took action against the accused based on the inquiry.
This throws a light on the state of response from the administration to the complaints raised by students. UGC had come up with the Saksham report in which sexual harassment at Universities or Higher Education Institutes (HEI) is discussed extensively and clear guidelines are issued. India got the law related to sexual harassment of women at workplace in 2013; before that we had Vishakha guidelines operational since 1997. But the guidelines were rarely implemented in its spirit. There were repeated incidents of sexual harassment and redressal was seldom achieved. Hence in 2012, a Public Interest Litigation was filed in the supreme court highlighting a number of individual cases of sexual harassment in academia and other sectors and arguing that the Vishakha Guidelines were not effectively implemented. Supreme court gave the directive that State functionaries must put in place sufficient mechanisms to ensure effective implementation of the Vishakha Guidelines until the enactment of the bill.
In 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act came into force. In 2014-15, Indian universities reported 75 complaints of sexual harassment. These figures were from a report received by UGC from 84 universities about cases of sexual harassment against women lecturers, professor and research scholars. While looking at these numbers, we need to keep in mind that the issue of sexual harassment has a stigma and many incidents go unreported.
In 2016-17, 149 complaints were reported from Universities/HEIs. The latest report on the UGC website (April 2018-March 2019) consisting of data for only 188 universities mentions 171 complaints of sexual harassment. The total number of universities/HEIs (including private universities) is 945 as per UGC data. Out of 188 universities who filed a report, 29 universities have replied as ‘Nil’ to the question whether internal committee is constituted as per the Act, although constitution of the committee is mandatory after enactment of the said law. Creating awareness is one of the mandates given by the said law but only 417 awareness/sensitization sessions were organised in these 188 universities, which shows how poor the efforts of outreach are.
Along with this, time and again, many issues were flashed in media with respect to implementation of the law and inquiry process. One major issue is no response or poor response from management/administration on the concerns raised. The student behind ‘Name and Shame list’ stated the same reason for her act. Many students have alleged that administrations protect the accused and turn a deaf ear to their grievances. Many a times, complaints were not registered as the complainants were asked offending questions when they tried to report their grievance; such as “What did you wear?” “Who was with you?” “Why did you go there?” These are the usual reactions of our society in cases of sexual harassment or rape. But the ‘responsible’ persons at the universities/HEIs in these cases reflected same misogynist attitude.
About the enquiry process, many students have shared their experience of victimization. To some, committee members advised not to follow the case as the accused has a brilliant career or have higher standing; it will bring defame to the institute/university and so on. In some instances, students had to approach police rather than the internal committee. This shows that there was perhaps a lack of confidence on the committee by the aggrieved persons for (obvious) reasons such as the accused being member of the committee, perception that committee members would be in favour of the accused, perceived fear of impact on work/career and sometimes ignorance of students for such internal redressal mechanism. The onus of this ignorance is again on the administration since it is their responsibility to make all the concerned aware about it.
What needs to be done at the universities and HEIs?
The UGC guidelines on how to deal with sexual harassment are very clear. In view of the Act and these guidelines, Universities/HEIs must do the following;
- Set up the committees as mandated by the law
- Organise regular training for committee members to handle the complaints properly
- Organise sensitization sessions for students, faculty and the staff
- must treat sexual harassment as a misconduct in service rules and initiate action for such misconduct
- must have guidelines for ‘ethics for research supervision’ as research students are more vulnerable to sexual harassment.
In case of non-compliance, UGC can withhold grants or may withdraw the recognition to receive the grants from UGC.
Universities/HEIs are primarily the spaces for students and their wellbeing should be treated as a priority. Sexual or any harassment generally arises through power relations. Patriarchy normalises sexual harassment of women. But it needs to be looked as human rights violation and should be treated sensitively. Not just female students, male students may also face sexual harassment owing to the power relations especially in case of research students where their supervisors have the power. Considering this, UGC has directed that students of all genders can complain if they face sexual harassment at their college/university. Queer voices are almost missing from our campuses. UGC amended the definition of ragging to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. UGC guidelines to this particular law of sexual harassment at workplace have made the redressal available to students of all genders. But much remains to be done on this front as well.
Along with students; women faculty and women staff members can make complaint of sexual harassment. This law is not gender neutral, it recognizes the patriarchal bias and power imbalance among men and women. It specially came into force to deal with sexual harassment of women at workplace as women are more vulnerable to sexual violence than men. Understanding the spirit and purpose of this law, universities/HEIs should treat it as a priority. Our ecosystems certainly need to be improved in terms of gender and social equality. Recently there was a debate on casting couch and many women actors openly talked about it. A famous and powerful Indian television producer made a statement that new comers are also ready to make compromises to get the work. But is it a bargain? And is it between the equals? If the ecosystem is of compromises and leaves no other ways; what would a struggler do? So certainly, a larger burden of shaping the world is on senior, powerful and responsible people in every walk of life.
1. Internal Committee is an internal redressal mechanism which has to be constituted as mandated by the said law whether there is a complain or not. The committee has to conduct a proper inquiry in the complaints of sexual harassment.
Preeti Karmarkar is associated with the Pune-based organization ‘Nari Samata Manch’ which works on the issues of violence against women. She has also been a part of several internal committees over the years. Views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a Confluence Series called “Under-represented groups in academia: issues and way forward”. The remaining articles can be found here.