A Study on Sexual Harassment in Colleges in Mumbai: An Executive Summary


Our gratitude extends to all those who have made this study possible namely all the data collectors; students, volunteers and staff of Akshara, who visited colleges across Mumbai, distributed questionnaires among students and conducted interviews. We would also like to thank all the faculty members and Women’s Development Cell officials who gave their personal accounts of ground realities on campuses.

We are also grateful to Sunanda Chindarkar from International Institute of Population Sciences for her contribution to the process of data entry and analysis.

The compilation of data, writing of drafts involved Anita Mehta and Panchali and the final versions were the work of Ara Johannes and Nandita Gandhi.


October, 2006

Why the Study?

There is an unfortunate silence surrounding this issue. And because it is not in the public arena of debate, not being discussed or analysed, it is a misunderstood issue. Sexual harassment was earlier called ‘eve teasing’ or a frivolous pastime for boys and a petty misdemeanour. It took time for high profile cases and protests to be called sexual harassment and to be seen as an offence. As women, as a women’s group and as part of the women’s movement working with and concerned about women, we know how they have learned to live defensively. We refrain from going out at night or move around in groups after dark and avoid strangers. Whether you are young or middle aged, a homemaker or employed, an activist or student, if you are female then you have internalised defensive strategies when out in public space. It could be in the way you carry yourself, how alert you are in crowds, how aware you are of another’s behaviour or how you instinctively carry your bag in front of your chest when in a crowded bus.

There are some women who may not have been harassed. But none have escaped the fear of harassment, of being misunderstood or of having been blamed for being provocative. All of us have our own ‘harassment’ stories. It is this loss of freedom of movement, which we resent and would like to overcome. Until the late 1980s, there was no recourse for women as the issue had no name. Feelings of anger, humiliation, fear, loss of confidence and in extreme cases self imposed house arrest and even suicide were the fall outs of sexual harassment. Women sought out individual and private solutions.

The Bhawridevi case in Rajasthan, a spate of protests and public debates lead to the Supreme Court’s landmark Vishaka Judgement in 1997. It’s guidelines defined sexual harassment and sought to protect women from sexual harassment by placing the onus of providing a safe work environment on the management or administration. It, thus, became mandatory for all work related organisations to have a sexual harassment redressal mechanism. However, regardless of the introduction of legal directives and public debate, the situation seems to remain the same. The silence remains, the problem persists.

In India, every day a woman is harassed every 51 minutes and sexually molested every 26 minutes. We have no idea of the unreported cases which make up the remaining part of the iceberg’s tip.

Most people will argue that sexual harassment either happens in isolated and dark roads or large organisations. What they mean is that not all women face it. Let us look at college campuses, which are protected, learning institutions. The Gender Study Group of the University of Delhi, 1996 shows that 92 percent of women in hostels and 88 percent of women day scholars have faced sexual harassment on campus. A 1997 survey of colleges in Mumbai found that 39 percent of women students have experienced harassment.

There have been other studies done in different parts of the country, which have revealed important data and findings. So how will another one, which will probably come up with the same findings, matter?  We saw our study, not only as a form of collecting data but as a form of involvement in the issue. Our study was a participatory one which involved both, interviewers and interviewees, men and women, students and faculty, victims and perpetrators.

Objectives and Methodology

Our objectives of the study were:

  • To assess the level of awareness and perceptions of students and faculty members regarding sexual harassment
  • To assess the impact of sexual harassment on female students
  • To evaluate redressal mechanisms; how well they function, problems faced in running them and if they are accessed by students.

Sampling Technique and Sample Size:

The Convenient Stratified Sampling Technique was utilized for the study. Graduate and post- graduate colleges of all streams affiliated to Mumbai University were stratified into UGC and quasi governmental colleges. From the former category we chose colleges from four zones (South Mumbai, Central Mumbai, Western Mumbai, Navi Mumbai). We gave ourselves the target of about 800 students an approximately equal proportion of respondents from each zone. They were divided into male and female respondents. Respondents within these two categories were chosen by convenience. They included students from 11th-15th std. from the fields of Arts, Science, Commerce and professional courses, in Mumbai. We also included about 66 staff members. We finally interviewed 890 students and 66 staff.




































Tools for Data Collection:

The quantitative method of data collection was chosen as a tool because we wished to cover a range of colleges and students. It contained a mix of open and close ended questions. Structured qualitative interview schedules were used for faculty members.


We approached lecturers of sociology especially those teaching research methodology about our study and intentions. They were happy to ask students to volunteer for it as it would give them a hands-on experience.  We began with the basics of research methodology and gave them an orientation of the study, which doubled as a gender training workshop. Their own perceptions of sexual harassment were explored and analysed. They were then sent on a trial run to their own colleges in pairs. They reported that it would be easier for them to go to other colleges. Akshara staff members also took to interviewing in colleges specially the staff members and principals. Interviewers engaged students in lengthy conversations often challenging their views and encouraging a dialogue with onlookers. Students were chosen randomly in canteens, corridors and at the gate.

Before initiating the interviewing process, we contacted principals for permission to do the study. All of them gave permission but cut short an interview with – there are no incidents in this college. Faculty members gave time in between their classes. Some were co-operative and asked their students to stay behind for the interviewing process. Those who were on the Women Development Cells [WDC] committees were sought out after fixing appointments.

Field work is never an easy but always an exciting process. Since sexual harassment is a relatively sensitive issue, there was resistance to discussing it openly and to expressing one’s true sentiments. Students as well as faculty members gave data collectors ‘politically correct’ responses. There are several media reports of lecturers having taken up cases of sexual harassment in court. However none of them wanted to be interviewed. Some of the women interviewers reported cases of sexual harassment even whilst they were interviewing! This lead to a fresh round of dialogue with male students of the particular college. One of the main drawbacks of having a large sample of 1000 is the emphasis on numbers. There was a virtual race to complete the numbers in each zone. The student volunteers were not interested in seeking qualitative answers. The Akshara staff was able to do only a limited number of lecturers and principals. Some officials of the WDC were interviewed much later.


Our questionnaire covered four broad areas namely perception of sexual harassment, prevalence of sexual harassment, impact on women students and redressal mechanisms. Each had further sub-divisions. Below we present some of our main findings from the study.

Perception of sexual harassment:

How do we understand and define sexual harassment? Students and faculty were asked a series of questions to find out what they thought amounted to sexual harassment. Undoubtedly, there is a shift from the earlier understanding of sexual harassment as ‘eve teasing’ or what our law says ‘outraging the modesty of a woman’. To gauge the extent of this shift, we juxtaposed what emerged from the study with the definition put forward by the Supreme Court.

It was in 1997 that the Supreme Court had redefined sexual harassment in the following terms :- “Sexual harassment includes such sexually determined behaviour such as : physical contact, a demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.”  This means that

  • sexual harassment is different from sexual desire, mutual romance or love
  • it is unwelcome sexual behaviour      
  • sexual harassment can come in many forms like physical, psychological, verbal or non-verbal
  • sexual harassment is a serious criminal offence

Forms of sexual harassment that pertain to a campus environment include; demands for sexual favours accompanied by veiled or open promises of preferential treatment or threats concerning an individual’s employment or student status, physical and verbal aggression arising from the above, communicating or displaying obscene letters, posters, cartoons, or photographs, disparaging remarks and gestures made with prejudicial intent in the work or study places, which specifically relate to the issue of gender, harassment through unwelcome telephone calls or E-mail, uninvited chasing or following/blackmailing in or outside the campus.

We found that a majority of faculty respondents 64.1% were not aware of the Vishaka Judgement and therefore of its definition of sexual harassment. Only a little over half of them were aware of the University policy thus showing a lack of awareness in respect to the history of sexual harassment laws in India. This was further verified by our qualitative interviews. Most students too had little knowledge of the definition of sexual harassment and the Vishaka Judgement.  This gave us reason to deduce that their understanding of sexual harassment was from common knowledge and opinions formed through childhood and in school.

According to the majority of faculty respondents, sexual harassment constituted of touching body parts, sexual rumours and suggestive gestures. When asked about their understanding of sexual harassment female students rated touching body parts as being the most indicative action of sexual harassment. Spreading sexual rumours and displaying pornographic materials were also rated highly. Among male students the results were similar, a little less than half the students rated touching body parts as being the most indicative action of sexual harassment. Like their female counterparts, male students also rated spreading sexual rumours and displaying pornographic materials highly.

Why do men harass women? A large majority of women, 66.7% believed that men sexually harass women for time pass or fun. Others (48.4%) felt that men do so in order to show their manliness. 62.9% of respondents felt that verbal forms of sexual harassment were the most common. These include comments, jokes, whistling, filmi songs, continuously phoning a person. Similarly half the men interviewed said that men sexual harass for fun or as a form of entertainment. According to male respondents the most likely people to harass women were seniors and outsiders.

We compared our findings with other research studies, which indicated that students, both men and women, described ‘verbal harassment’ as eve teasing and contrasted this with ‘physical harassment’, which has been seen as sexual harassment. They described eve teasing as relatively harmless behaviour committed usually by strangers, while sexual harassment would be grievous acts committed by acquaintances or men in positions of institutional power. In addition, most men and women described eve teasing as isolated incidents while sexual harassment would typically be repetitive and sustained over a long period of time. It is clear that so called ‘lighter’ forms of sexual harassment are considered as eve teasing whereas only if the action is severe and repetitive, is it classified by the majority as sexual harassment.

These findings show that it becomes important to distinguish between sexual harassment and teasing. A deeper analysis points to certain myths related to sexual harassment. These are so ingrained in everyday thought that their influence over us goes unnoticed. It becomes essential to dispel certain myths around sexual harassment so as to identify where our own beliefs related to the issue have emerged. Once we are clear as to where the boundaries lie, it is easier to claim our rights to a sexual harassment free environment to work or study in.

Prevalence of Sexual Harassment

How widespread is the phenomena of sexual harassment? A majority of faculty members felt that sexual harassment occurs on a daily basis. The majority of women students or 61.7% reported that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in or coming to college whereas a minority felt that it was rare. We asked the men, as they do not experience harassment, whether they had witnessed it. About half of them said that they had witnessed such incidents.

Trying to identify the locations where sexual harassment was most likely to take place, a large majority of female students spoke of secluded areas college grounds or alleys. Among faculty members, South and Western Mumbai respondents reported that sexual harassment takes place most frequently in canteen areas. In contrast, Central Mumbai members felt that college grounds, parking places and secluded places were areas where incidents of sexual harassment were most likely to take place.

Data indicated that both men and women students as well as faculty members were accurate in their awareness of how often incidents of sexual harassment take place. They were also aware about the locations on campus where sexual harassment occurs and thrives. The moot point to emerge is that as colleges are learning environments, what sort of impact will it have on female students?

Impact of Sexual Harassment

The media portrayal of sexual harassment on college campuses would lead one to believe that eve teasing is a certificate to a woman’s desirability. However our findings showed that sexual harassment, far from pleasing women, has the opposite effect.

The majority of women stated that sexual harassment leads to a loss of self-confidence as well as a fear of reoccurrence. Some stated that it even resulted in absenteeism from college. These are severe repercussions of sexual harassment on college campuses and it soon became obvious that preventive measures must be taken. Damage to student’s levels of confidence, inculcating fear of repeated harassment and consequent absenteeism from college, are only a few of the effects of sexual harassment on college campuses. Most men students reported that women become angry and self-conscious. They also felt that there is an emotional effect, constant suspicion and absenteeism from college. A few also felt that it lowered grades.

Other research studies have shown similar impacts on women. The Gender Study Group showed that most women felt disgusted, insulted and scared by even the most frivolous kind of harassment. Women often internalise male perceptions of sexual harassment and blame themselves for having brought it on. They not only doubt the validity of their own experiences but begin to believe that they themselves must be ‘abnormal’, ‘cheap’, ‘indecent’ or deserving the violence that comes their way. Many women said that they felt extreme anger, frustration and helplessness at not being able to do anything. Victims of sexual harassment said that they find it difficult to trust or have friendships with men.  45% of women stated that sexual harassment on Delhi campus roads has affected their personal or academic development in one way or another.

Given the emotional fall–out of sexual harassment as reported by both male and female students, it is evident that this is a problem with large implications. Its prevalence within a learning environment makes the matter even more serious.

Redressal Mechanisms

After the Supreme Court guidelines, several universities and colleges took the initiative to deal with the problem. IIT, Delhi was the first to develop a policy on sexual harassment. The working group on sexual harassment of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi also drafted a proposal for an institutional mechanism to combat sexual harassment on campus.  The Forum against Oppression of Women, a women’s rights group came up with a possible legislation. A seminar was organized by the University of Mumbai and the Bombay University and College Teacher’s Union in 1999, which discussed the women’s group’s draft.

Mumbai University took a unique step in its effort to implement the Supreme Court guidelines, by forming Women Development Cells in colleges and universities. The stated objectives of the cell are-

a)      Prevention of sexual harassment and the promotion of the general well being of female students, teaching and non-teaching women staff of the University and affiliated colleges/institutes.

b)      Provision of guidelines for the redressal of grievances of female students, teaching and non-teaching women staff of the University and affiliated colleges/institutes.

c)      Creation of social awareness about the problems of women and in particular regarding gender discrimination.

d)     Establishment of committees at the collegiate level and seeking the participation of both male and female students from NCC, NSS and other activities for the prevention of sexual harassment of women.

e)      Provision of assistance to the College level Women’s Development Cell for taking preventive steps in the matter of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

f)       Encouragement of the participation of NGOs working in the area of women’s development in the activities of the Cell.

g)      Organization of seminars and workshops at different centres in the University for the creation of general awareness and for the orientation of both male and female teachers for their participation in the activities of the cell.

h)      Organization of various types of training programs and self-employment schemes for the encouragement of self-reliance among women.

Our study found that only 52.4% of faculty respondents knew of the WDC in their respective colleges. When questioned as to the working of the Cell, a majority of faculty respondents or 54.5% reported that they were dormant. 36.4% reported that they were in the process of being formed. Statistics indicate that only a small percentage of WDCs are currently functioning. At the level of the students, 39% said that they were not aware of the provisions for a WDC to be formed. The majority of them or 80% said that they did not know the members of their WDC committee.

A large number of faculty respondents or 44.4% reported that the main reason for a lack of a redressal mechanism was because their Principals had not constituted a committee. 33.3% of faculty respondents felt it was because of the principal and faculty were unsure about the rules and procedures for setting up a WDC. A little more that half or 54% of faculty respondents reported that the main problem was disinterest in the college especially amongst lecturers.

As most colleges were in the process of setting up WDCs or had dormant ones, it is not surprising that 78.4% of faculty respondents reported that there were no cases of sexual harassment dealt with by CWDC/ Grievance cells within the last year. A small percentage 13.5% reported less than three cases. However, our data shows that both men and women students and faculty said that there is a large amount of sexual harassment in colleges. What sort of actions do women students as well as faculty take if they are harassed? A large majority or 91.4% of faculty respondents had said that they would never approach the management. Newspaper reports show that women lecturers have appealed to the courts especially if the incident involved the principals.

A large number or 56.3% of women students stated that they would seek support from the authorities and 38.8% reported that they would themselves confront the harasser. Almost an equal number of men students were sceptical about a redressal mechanism.

Our qualitative data shows that women students, by and large, deal with sexual harassment by themselves or with help from friends or simply keep quiet about it. A majority of female respondents stated that the two main reasons behind not reporting incidents was fear of being made fun of by others and not being taken seriously. Even lecturers who have good relations with their students confirmed that they seldom come to them with their harassment cases. Then why did 56.3% say they would go to the authorities? We would like to modify the statement by saying that the majority of women students would like to access the Cell. They would like to if they found the Cells functioning properly, had sympathetic committee members and were assured confidentiality and justice.

The 1997 study on sexual harassment in colleges and universities campus in Mumbai highlighted the non-implementation of the Supreme Court guidelines. Out of 165 colleges affiliated to the Mumbai University, only 4 to 5 had functioning WDCs.

Findings in a Nutshell

1000 women and men students, lecturers from 46 colleges were interviewed using the qualitative and quantitative methods.

v  The majority of men and women students and faculty did not have a holistic awareness of the definition and issue of sexual harassment. Their understanding was a mix of commonly held views. There was ‘teasing’ and a more serious form of sexual harassment. The majority 64.1% were not aware of the Supreme Court guidelines and definition of sexual harassment.

v  Both the faculty and students admitted that there was a high level of prevalence of sexual harassment in colleges. The usual locations were the canteens and isolated maidans. 61% of female respondents reported to have experienced some form of sexual harassment and close to half of the male respondents reported to have witnessed some form of sexual harassment on campus therefore it occurs significantly within an exclusive learning environment.

v  The majority of the women 66.7%, and the men students, agreed that sexual harassment was for time pass or fun. Yet, both of them were aware that it resulted in loss of self confidence and disgust. Women reported that they would become suspicious of all men and sometimes resort to absenteeism.

v  The majority of students 39.1% were not aware of the provision of a WDC in their colleges thus indicating a lack of effectiveness in creating awareness of the University provision by college administrative systems.

v  Only about 10% of colleges had a functioning Women’s Development Cell to take up cases.

v  At present neither the faculty nor students access the WDCs. But women students had a hope that they would go to a Cell with their case if they were functioning and were sympathetic to them.

Recommendations for Further Action and Research


  • Need for awareness generating programs for faculty and students in colleges with respect to the history behind sexual harassment laws, the University policy and definition of sexual harassment.
  • Since seniors were identified as being the main perpetrators of sexual harassment, efforts need to be made to challenge the power associated with seniority on campuses.

Locations of Sexual Harassment

  • College canteens and maidans need to be patrolled by student groups and guards and made safe for women students.

Impact of Sexual Harassment

  • The study indicated that absenteeism, lowering of grades and loss of self confidence are some of the impacts of sexual harassment on women. College authorities should make available services of counsellor.


Grievance Cells

  • There is a need for effective advertising of the Women’s Development Cells by college authorities
  • University authorities in charge of the WDC should hold orientation programs and training workshops on the procedures of setting up and running grievance cells
  • University authorities in charge of the WDC should help colleges to set up their Cells by clearly articulating its Policy. It could also periodically enquiry about the Cell and trouble shoot problems.
  • Principals of colleges need to appoint interested lecturers and students on a rotation basis to the Cell. The quality and number of events taken up by the Cell depends largely on the interest of the members.
  • WDCs need to work towards building credibility with students and making themselves more approachable. This will enable them to dissolve a strongly held belief among students that registering cases will not make a difference.

In the Press:

Sexual abuse is on the rise in city colleges, Published by DNA, 2007


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