Bias and victim blaming: Colleges' sexual harassment cells offer no solace to women
From denying that the crime occurred to blaming the victim, colleges hardly ever take the correct action when a student files a sexual harassment complaint.
By Minakshi Madhu
Did you know that the law requires all educational institutions, whether public or private, to have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) that deals with cases of sexual harassment? And that Act also provides a strict procedure that governs the setting up and functioning of these committees? No? Well, a lot of colleges are pretending they haven’t heard either.
We talked to students across India to find out how their colleges handle sexual harassment. Students from several institutions, including those from RV College of Engineering, Bangalore; Manipal Institute of Technology; University School of Law and Legal Studies, Delhi; often didn’t know of any sexual harassment committee (SHC) in their college. One student asked, “Is it the same as a student grievance committee?” Another asked, “Is it the same as a women’s empowerment cell?” A third advised us to make ourselves aware that many complaints are false before writing about this. Thanks for that.
So here is what we heard these committees do (where they exist) when faced with a complaint.
1. Deny, deny, deny
In 2014, at Jadavpur University, the registrar claimed he had no knowledge of a sexual harassment incident. This was a full day after it had been widely discussed in the media, to the extent that the education minister had even asked for a probe into the case. While few educationists can aspire to such heights, denial and delay is a very popular tactic.
2. Tell the victim to study more
In 2014, when a PhD scholar at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, spoke to her principal about a supervisor who had been harassing her for months, she was told that the supervisor had a 'weakness' for her. She was also told to focus on her degree instead. The principal advised her to treat the harassment as an ‘academic problem’ and not report it. Similarly, in Visva-Bharati, Bhirbhum, West Bengal, a parent was advised by the principal that his daughter, the complainant, should focus on her studies and forget about the case.
3. What’s there, it’s not rape, no?
In the same case at Visva-Bharati, the Vice-Chancellor also told the complainant to ‘negotiate.’ In Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), Kolkata, in 2014, a professor reportedly said, ‘Kya kiya, rape toh nahin kiya (It's not like he raped her)', during an SHC proceeding.
4. Pressure the complainant to retract
The father of the complainant in the Visva-Bharti college case said he was offered money and clothes by the principal, to make his daughter retract the complaint. In St. Stephens, too, the principal is said to have not only pressured the student to retract her complaint, but also made her state in writing that she didn’t want to file a formal complaint.
5. Worry about the male student’s future
A former student of the Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication, Pune told us an incident from her college. “My friend got felt up by a classmate in the college office. When she lodged a complaint, the administration resisted enquiry. The rest of the class said things like she was too dark to be harassed. When the enquiry finally took place, a notice was issued suspending the boy for a week. Of course they made sure he was suspended during Diwali holidays, so that the poor little harasser would not miss any classes.
Neelam (name changed on request) is a third-year student of Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, Haryana. During her first semester in college, she was molested by a senior student in the library. When she reported this to the SHC, she was refused access to the CCTV footage that had recorded the crime; was asked if she was lying because both she and the molester bore the same surname, and so were they in fact related; and was blamed for having spoken to the boy in the first place (before the incident took place). A committee member said, ‘You were just molested, right, that’s all?’ Because it was the first case of sexual harassment against him, she was told that he would not be suspended.
However, his track record comprises several such crimes on other students who were willing to talk about it. He had even been caught masturbating in the library. She says, “A person caught with drugs is expelled or suspended for a semester, even if it is the first time. I asked why this wasn’t being dealt with the same way. I was told that only if it had been a ‘rarest of the rare’ case, would he be penalised more than this.” So doing drugs qualifies as a ‘rarest of the rare’ case, but multiple incidents of molestation do not amount to the same degree of crime. A few months later, the college emailed the student body saying the student has been expelled, but in reality, he is going to graduate soon!
6. Tell the victim it’s her fault.
The Jindal student and Kunjila Mascillamani of SRFTI, who filed complaints, were both accused of wanting to become ‘popular’. Here is the wildest one we heard. In an alternative school in Bangalore, a girl complained about a boy who had taken a photograph of her in the shower. When the girl complained, the staff are said to have told her that she was overreacting because she was from a ‘conservative family’.
7. Press the nuclear button
A student who recently graduated from St. Joseph's College, Bangalore says, “In my first year, everyone would sit along the pathway leading to our block because there were a few trees. When I got back to college after summer break, there were notices telling us we couldn’t sit there anymore. Some women students had complained about a bunch of male students who sat along the pathway and passed comments at them, or whistled. The college’s response was to stop us from sitting there. No action was taken about the complaint – a year later, students began to get suspended for hugging or sharing earphones.”
Kunjila Mascillamani of SRFTI writes that her sexual harassment complaint was forwarded by the ICC to the police without her consent. When the police turned up at her hostel one night to question her, she was unprepared and traumatised by the investigation process. “This is rape after rape,” she said.
SHCs in colleges are supposed to be a microcosm of the Indian judicial system. Unfortunately, the same problems that plague the judicial system exist here too – bias, violence, sexism and victim blaming.
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