Sexual Harassment: The IITM Story – Part 1


By Surajram Kumaravel and Shilpa Menon

Stop Sexual HarassmentSexual harassment, in modern times, is a major issue in legal and public spheres worldwide. In our country, however, it is only over the past couple of decades that it has been recognized by the legal framework as a crime. Institutional measures were implemented even later, with the Visakha Guidelines coming out in 1997, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act being passed as recently as 2013. As a result, IIT Madras today has two bodies, the Women’s Forum and the Complaints Committee against Sexual Harassment (CCASH), that work towards gender equality on campus not just for students, but also for faculty, non-teaching staff, residents and anyone else who is employed by, or studying under, the institute.

As per the Act, ‘sexual harassment’ is not the same as explicit violence of a sexual nature, like rape. The definition given by the Sexual Harassment Act 2013 is quite broad and any ‘unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication)’ like the following can be construed as sexual harassment by the CCASH and a court of law:

  • Physical contact and advances;

  • A demand or request for sexual favours;

  • Making sexually coloured remarks;

  • Showing pornography;

  • Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

It is also a common misconception that harassment cannot be an issue in an ‘institute of national importance’ like IIT Madras, because the campus is perceived as being well-secured and isolated from the rest of the city, and the inhabitants are students or professors who are educated and socially aware. On the face of it, this is highly believable — to most students, moving around alone between labs, hostels and eateries is never seen as an issue even at the oddest of times and physical security is not even a cause for much worry. The few incidents that have been reported, however, tell a different story. “I don’t think everybody is getting abused all the time on campus, but the presence of just one or two incidents is enough to want to clean things up completely,” says Prof. Preeti Aghalayam, chairperson of the Women’s Forum.

Security in general has been a major issue to tackle in our campus which is a forested expanse of 650 acres. The city we live in has grown by leaps and bounds in recent times, and unlike until the 1970s, the institute is now an integral part of Chennai. Localities like Taramani and Velachery have a comparatively larger population now and this has resulted in an increased influx of outsiders to the campus. In addition, the increased construction activity, combined with the legal limitation on the proportion of personnel who can be employed in non-teaching roles, makes it a challenge to ensure that every part of campus is secure. Prof. L. S. Ganesh, Dean of Students, informs us that the institute will be installing more surveillance cameras in strategic locations on campus to enable the security personnel to work more effectively. Prof. Preeti is of the view that the institute grounds are safe only as long as we remain aware of the changed environment it is a part of. But incidents like a professor’s wife being robbed of her valuables while she was returning from the temple in the evening, and people on vehicles harassing foreign students, raise serious concerns regarding the effectiveness of the institute’s security force.

Apart from mechanisms and systems like security forces and legal recourse, it is widely accepted that a long-term, preventive solution can be achieved only by bringing about a change in the attitudes and sensibilities of people. This is where awareness plays an important role, although it may not yield immediate results. This delayed effect makes it difficult for the administration to devise methods to solve the problem. It also doesn’t help that the campus has a floating population — every year there is a flow of approximately 1500 students leaving the institute and a new batch joining it.

As an institute that houses people from all over the world, the cultural differences among residents can be quite vast, due to which some practices might be interpreted as harassment by others. Similarly, culture shock may be a factor that leads to harassment, and as Prof. LSG puts it, “cultural differences coupled with frustrations sometimes lead to such incidents”. It is also seen that a wide range of people (including students, faculty, staff, visitors, construction workers and alumni) have been affected by or involved in an incident of harassment.

The Women’s Forum (WF) serves as a platform for women from different sections, be it staff or students, to discuss and solve their problems. The current scenario is such that Women’s Forum activities mostly involve faculty, staff, and post-graduate and doctoral students. The issues dealt with for faculty include health issues and the need for facilities, among others. Sensitizing and making people more aware of sexual harassment is one of the tasks taken up by the WF, and some workshops and panel discussions at the departmental level have been held to this effect. Presently, these workshops are usually held for both male and female research scholars, dealing with harassment as a part of general topics like work ethics and work-life balance. The reach of such awareness activities is relatively minimal, and Prof. Preeti agrees that a lot more has to be done. However, she says, a challenge for such initiatives is that students don’t come forward to participate in or to organize them.

One might notice that undergraduate students are not the focus group of most of these programs. They are much younger, and the nature of their interaction with teaching faculty is different from that of postgrad students or Ph.D. scholars. They might therefore face quite different issues and as of now, there is no proper forum to address them. Prof. Preeti opines that just teaching undergraduates how to handle sexual harassment through lectures and discussions wouldn’t work. A more creative and subtle method needs to be used, she says, but that will work best if these activities are championed by students; only they can choose a medium they relate to, and understand the problems their peers face.

The frequency of Women’s Forum activities targeting the student community have reduced in the past due to various reasons, but Prof. Preeti hopes that this year’s Women’s day activities will mark the first step toward involving students. “We will have the events organized like a conference, so that each participant can choose a track to follow. The events will try to address a diverse range of issues, and will be held in multiple languages to remain reachable to every woman,” says Prof. Aghalayam. The aim is to reach out to both students and faculty through issues that concern them.

Knowing how it was instituted to help the students deal with issues, one would assume that mitr would have sought to address the issue of awareness in some way. However, their most visible activities in this regard have thus far been restricted to offering professional counseling to students who may need help after being harassed. “We haven’t done anything so far in this year (towards this issue), but last year we did have a talk. If students have any ideas in this regard, we’d love to hear from them,” says Saptarshi Prakash, UG Core Member of mitr, on mitr’s stance on the issue of sexual harassment. Mitr as a body can only act as a facilitating link and a forum for students to spread awareness, but has great potential in drawing students’ attention to the issue.

Prof. M. S. Sivakumar, Chief Advisor (mitr), says that mitr is currently in talks with professional counselors regarding the training of its student members to offer help in such cases. “Of course, one of the most difficult problems we face is the emotional blackmail that a female student faces silently through repeated nagging, reminding of eventualities of coming out in open about what is happening. Creative ways of handling such problems will make a huge difference among our students,” he remarked. In the past mitr has worked in conjunction with the Women’s Forum in 2012, when workshops and events were held during Women’s Day. The Cores say that they have plans to initiate similar programmes again, and one hopes that this comes to fruition. A model similar to the LGBT awareness drive (which is now at a standstill due to the reinstatement of Article 377) could be used to campaign against sexual harassment. Once again, student participation was pointed out as an issue; as Saptarshi puts it, “everyone agrees that this is a noble cause, but when it comes to themselves participating in activities, they feel that someone else will participate and take initiative.”

One thing to be noted is that in the Cores’ opinions, though the new Life Skills course does not directly address the issue, it has promoted inter-gender mingling. Since the first year students attending the course were split into mixed groups for activities and assignments, they observed that girls and boys did not stay apart as usual, and were able to develop healthy relations. This could be considered a step forward in addressing some of the deep-set attitudes that underlie the incidence of harassment, especially in an institute like ours, where the number of male students far outweighs the number of female students.

On the whole, it is quite clear that IITM has a long way to go, but is evolving to address the issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality. In a survey conducted by The Fifth Estate, 32 percent of the 687 respondents felt that awareness was quite dismal, and 34 percent had not even thought about or discussed the issue anywhere. (More on the survey later.) The mechanisms and structures for improving the situation do exist, but need to be developed further. With increasing pressure on the institute to address the issue, rising concerns about media reports and a culture of student participation in decision-making, there seems to be hope for a safer, more aware insti.

This is the first article in a three-part series examining the issue of sexual harassment in IIT. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3!

Update: Women’s Day was celebrated on March 7th, with day-long events including a series of talks on empowerment, reproductive health and overall fitness. A panel discussion on “Abuse in Relationships” was spearheaded by Research Scholars. An audience participatory exercise was moderated by Ms. Bhooma V G (Registrar, IIT Madras) where the students, research scholars, and staff of IITM put forth several suggestions on Educational, Health & Social Awareness and Entertainment related events that the Women’s Forum could take up in the future. On Mar 8th, a hands-on workshop on ‘Self-defense for women’ conducted by ‘Survival Instincts’ was held in the SAC auditorium and saw nearly 100 students from IITM and some local colleges participate.

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