Everyone in India is talking about it, but how is the issue of sexual harassment dealt with in insti? In the third and final article of this multi-part series, Surajram Kumaravel and Shilpa Menon discuss the results of a survey conducted on the issue, and talk about the need for an internal charter.
What Do the Students Say?
In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we tried to probe into the scenario existing in IITM as far as sexual harassment is concerned. In the final part of this series, we share with you the results of an online survey conducted by The Fifth Estate in an attempt to gauge student opinions and awareness levels. A total of 687 students responded, with representation from all branches and degrees in the institute. Nearly 40% of the respondents were female.
When asked ‘To whom will you complain in case of sexual harassment?’, the largest proportion (32%) of the respondents chose ‘Security Section’. This is, indeed, the best course of action if the perpetrator is an outsider, and the issue needs immediate action such as rounding up the culprit. However, the Institute has had to outsource the task of manning security posts owing to the restriction on the ratio of teaching to non-teaching staff. On occasions, this has led to IITM having less control over the quality of security staff. “The security staff need to be given better training — often, they interpret prevention of sexual harassment as preventing any interaction between males and females at night!” says Deepak Johnson, Students’ General Secretary.
Many of the respondents advocated improving security; increasing security forces, better vigilance by security at night time, giving training to security staff on how to deal with female students, and ensuring that the security section takes up complaints without rejecting them for some reason or the other.
Outsiders vs. Insiders
Perceptions were split on who were most likely to be perpetrators: residents of the campus, or those from outside. Many felt that students would not harass fellow students as they are a part of the same community and that trespassers are the main culprits was also a common opinion. In reality, perpetrators in cases brought to the admin’s attention include students, faculty, staff, workers within campus and outsiders.
Awareness–What Can Be Done?
Firstly, only 24% of the respondents were aware of the existence of the CCASH, and 45% of the students do not carry the phone number of the person they would complain to. This indicates that most of the students are unprepared to deal with harassment and file a complaint in the event of an incident.
Many among the respondents felt that there is a need to encourage female students to lodge a complaint, especially for issues that are seen as being too ‘light’ to register a complaint against, such as verbal abuse. Some students also opined that such seemingly minor incidents are still the root of much larger problems of sexual assault and violence, and it is imperative that such ideas are dealt with at the early onset. One of the suggestions was that CCASH needs to cultivate a friendly and accessible image like mitr. Other measures that were suggested include:
Talk/EML about sexual harassment
Play/Short film in OAT before screenings
More advertising for the Self Defense Workshops
Creative ad campaign, like what mitr did for smoking
Silent rally on a working day. Using placards, t-shirts with a printed message etc. to spread awareness.
Smail/Insti Website to spread awareness
Make part of curriculum (Life Skills course)
Training to deal with situations
Training to build documentable and verifiable evidence
Clear LAN of objectionable material
Student discussion groups
CCASH: Sharing of Information
The sharing of information relating to cases is a major bone of contention, be it student suicides or registered complaints of sexual harassment. As mentioned in Part 2, the Act itself prohibits the release of most information, allowing only information about the ‘justice secured’ in a way that does not compromise the personal identity of anyone involved (clause 16, notification released by Ministry of Women and Child Development).
The rumour mill is indeed a major issue in a small community like ours, but the measures given by many of the respondents feel that the outright suppression of all information is not the right solution, but rather the regulated release of legally permissible data. Some of the suggestions given by students are
A single point of contact should quickly address the concerns of students and the general public if any such case is reported; this would reduce rumour-mongering and speculation.
Periodically send an email summary about the number of identified and resolved cases. There might be several untold cases; seeing actions taken people might come forward to report their story.
Open discussions between students and faculty
Information on IITM’s rules against sexual harassment should be easily accessible on an online portal/institute website
Awareness is needed on what information is allowed to be shared and what cannot, not only to hold IITM accountable, but also to ensure that classified information does not get leaked to media.
With a majority of IITM’s students being male, it’s surprising that there is no recourse available to male victims of harassment. A few of the respondents pointed out the need to provide protection to persons of all genders, but no steps have yet been taken to discuss this, and there have been no formally reported incidents either. Since the Act itself does not identify the possibility of males being victims of harassment, it is necessary that the institute forms its own guidelines to protect the majority of its student population from harassment. Most of the Institute office-bearers we spoke to seemed to think that this issue was covered under the LGBT umbrella, and as of now, the legal framework of the country adopts a similar approach: article 377 is cited as the legal safeguard against any sexual relation between males. However, there is no distinction between harassment and consensual relationships and neither are there provisions for situations where a female harasses a male. Making the Act gender-neutral is an ongoing debate, with women’s groups on one side arguing against it, saying that it would enable women to be further victimised through counter-accusations, and the other side arguing for it, stating that the law needs to recognize victims of all genders.
Who Should Take the First Step?
In an institute like ours that tries to promote maximum student participation in decision-making, the question that arises is this: who should drive the change? Is it IITM’s duty as an organization to take the initiative to spread awareness, or is it the student community that should take it up as a cause? From the institute’s side, many feel that lack of student impetus is a major issue. Prof. LSG remarked that student enthusiasm in using the powers granted to them has declined considerably over the years, with more focus on protest and less focus on initiative. ‘There is nothing preventing students from creating a forum to address the matter,’ he says. As far as the survey is concerned, opinions are split: 47% of the survey respondents feel that the change should come from the students, and 51% of the respondents state that they will be willing to participate and work towards the cause of fighting sexual harassment on campus.
If one thing is clear from the survey, it’s that the general student body has a lot of ideas and relevant questions. It is also clear that misinformation, misdirection and a lot of guesswork clouds most students’ perception of the issue. Some of them are unaware of the rigor of the CCASH’s investigations, and a few think that mitr does not get involved in tackling the issue at all, when in reality, this is not the case. Moreover, quite a few of the suggestions contradict the provisions of the Act, implying that there is a need to spread awareness on what is allowed, and what isn’t.
The responses have also revealed diverse opinions. Some respondents feel that the solution lay in stopping females from dressing ‘provocatively’, teaching ‘Indian Culture’ or in preventing students of both sexes from moving around in campus at night. There is also a tendency to treat sexual harassment as a female-specific issue, rather than a societal problem that also concerns them. Others felt that victim-blaming is a negative trend and that safety should come at a minimum cost of freedom; there is a need to make the campus a safer place for females to be able to walk alone. A majority of the respondents (35%) said that they’ve never thought about the issue of sexual harassment and have never heard it being talked about. It is high time that the community of IITM probed into the real causes of sexual harassment, and this can only begin with the discussion and debate of differing stances.
Do We Need A Written Internal Policy/Code?
This issue of lack of information, and a few unfortunate events that took place last year were reasons enough to motivate a group of 32 people, including the SGS, Deepak Johnson, to volunteer and constitute a formalised set of rules that lay down an internal charter on how to deal with sexual harassment in IITM. They hoped this would clearly define the powers of the CCASH and limit other authorities from interfering in it’s investigations. Since this was prior to the passage of the The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013, their idea was to have a document based on the Vishaka Guidelines similar to what is published by JNU, Harvard and Jammu University. However, with the Act being passed in Feb 2013, and a lack of continued cooperative efforts between the students and the administration, the work on the draft has stalled. Prof. Preeti Aghalayam says that she needs enthusiastic students to refine and complete the draft, and get it vetted by a lawyer. There have not been any formal efforts to revive this, or draw student participation in the matter.
Prof. Nandita Dasgupta, Chairperson of CCASH, feels that the Act itself would suffice as guidelines for the CCASH, and that a Charter will only be useful to the extent that it can be circulated within the community to improve awareness of legal ramifications.
Some of the ideas suggested in the draft were:
Recognizing sexual harassment in the internet/virtual realm
Adequate student representation in the CCASH
The victim’s right to know the identity of the offender and the action taken against him
Dealing with cases where alumni are involved
Gradation of acts and punishments: explicitly list and club offenses and punishment.
Inclusion of people who work within campus grounds, but are not direct employees – vendors, storekeepers, construction workers, etc.
Define the process of decision-making in the Committee (rules vs. discretion)
Clear definition of powers and roles of Chairperson, ex-officio members, and other institute officials in the conduct of a case
Means to prevent bias in executive action after the CCASH makes its recommendations
It is to be noted that the Act itself prescribes the formulation and wide circulation of an internal Charter as one of the duties of all employers (clause 13(a), notification released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development). Since this is optional, it is up to the IITM community to decide whether such a document is necessary.
‘Reconstitution of Complaints Committee Against Sexual Harassment with more student representatives and a special focus on gender sensitisation’ was one of the points in the Deepak Johnson’s manifesto for the post of Students’ General Secretary. This however, could not be implemented. Aditya Bharadwaj, the SGS-Elect, also states in his manifesto the intention to implement methods to combat sexual harassment, and it remains to be seen whether the new batch of office-bearers will take the issue forward in the upcoming academic year.
(Please note that the suggestions made by the respondents do not reflect the authors’ opinions in any way.)