A right to be educated, harassment free!

Sexual harassment on Mumbai campuses

As prime targets of Violence, Women have learned to live defensively. We refrain from going out at night, prefer to move around in groups and as far as possible avoid strangers. Whether you’re young or middle aged, a homemaker or employed, an activist or student, if you’re female then you’re guaranteed to have internalized some defensive strategies when out in public space. Maybe it’s in the way you carry yourself, how alert you are of your surroundings, how aware you are of another’s behaviour or even how comfortable you’ve become with placing your bag in front of your chest.

While these strategies might work well for us, are there not those moments when despite how we’re dressed, someone tries to feel us up? When despite the distance we keep, some stranger tries to violate our space? When despite how we carry ourselves, a colleague or classmate misunderstands and thinks we’re being provocative on purpose? When despite structured roles and strict rules, a boss or professor tries to use his power to harass us sexually?

Even if you belong to that minuscule category of women who have not experienced the above forms of sexual harassment, you are still living within restricted boundaries of freedom. Consider for a moment another angle to sexual harassment; one that exists at such a subtle level that its control might go unrecognized. The next time you’re out in public observe carefully the amount of space the man sitting next to you takes up on the bus seat. Contrast that with how you sit when in shared spaces with men. Are your knees joined and body angled so as to take up the smallest amount of space possible? Moreover, take a look at how you stand at a railway platform. Are your arms crossed over your chest and your eyes scanning the crowd for potential gropers? Again, compare this to the way men around you carry themselves. Do they not exude the casual air of one who does not have to protect self against possible sexual harassment?

Similarly, when next in a classroom or office, watch the manner in which your male classmates or colleagues take up space and carry themselves. You most likely will observe the same indicators of freedom- freedom of movement and freedom from sexual harassment. It is therefore fair to assume that even if one has not experienced overt forms of sexual harassment such as touching, groping, teasing, passing lewd comments etc. if female, one is still a victim of the more subtle fallouts of sexual harassment; a lack of complete freedom; freedom of movement and the freedom to be free of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is directly linked with gender power structures and is a by product of patriarchy. Like other forms of violence against women, it is ‘gendered’ in nature i.e. one gender is more susceptible to this form of violence than the other. Thus, almost all women at some point in their lives will have faced sexual harassment regardless of caste and class, whereas the percentage among men, in comparison, is much less.

According to a national survey, in India, every 51 minutes, a woman is reported to be sexually harassed and every 26 minutes a woman is sexually molested. Several studies indicate that the magnitude of unreported cases is several times over the estimate. Campus settings are no exception to the rule. A research study done by Akshara in 2007; a Women’s Organization that works towards Gender Justice, looked into the prevalence of Sexual Harassment on Campuses, its impact on women, perceptions that men and women have and how effective Women’s Development Cells (WDCs) are in dealing with the issue. Over a thousand students, lecturers and principals from forty six colleges were interviewed.

According to this study, both college faculty members and students reported a high prevalence of sexual harassment on campuses. Common locations were canteens and isolated maidans. Among women, 61% reported to have experienced and close to half of the male respondents reported to have witnessed some form of sexual harassment on campus. Thus, it is evident that sexual harassment is rampant within an exclusive learning environment.

Interestingly, the study unveiled a problematic attitude that students, both male and female, have towards sexual harassment. A majority (66.7%) of women and men believed that sexual harassment was for “time pass” or “fun”. Yet, both were aware that it resulted in a loss of self confidence and disgust. Women even reported that they would become suspicious of all men and sometimes resort to absenteeism when sexually harassed. Thus, despite knowing the impact that sexual harassment has on women, it is still viewed as harmless ‘teasing’ by both genders.

Faculty members displayed a similar lacuna of awareness. A majority were not aware of the Supreme Court guidelines or the University’s Policy on sexual harassment. This is despite an orientation program held by the University, for faculty members, around these very areas. Moreover, only about 10% of colleges had a functioning Women’s Development Cell (WDC) to take up cases. Again, this was despite the University Policy. A majority of students were not even aware of the provision of a WDC in their colleges, indicating a lack of effectiveness in creating awareness about the University provision by college administrative systems. Those that were aware of the Cell stated that they wouldn’t file cases of sexual harassment because they believed “it wouldn’t make any difference” or “the cell wouldn’t take any action against the perpetrators”. Evidently, there is a lack of faith in the effectiveness of WDC’s by students.

In short, Akshara’s research study revealed several problematic areas within the realm of sexual harassment that need to be addressed. These include, awareness generating programs on campuses around what constitutes sexual harassment and its grave impact on women. Additionally, University authorities need to insure that campuses have effectively functioning WDC’s working on preventing and dealing with sexual harassment. WDC committees need to work to build credibility with students in order to insure that they report cases.

Unless these measures are adopted with a seriousness that renders WDC’s effective, sexual harassment will continue to thrive within academic spaces. The concern will then go beyond just an encroachment on women’s freedom. It will address the deprivation of safe access for women, to learning environments, our fundamental right.

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