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How sexual harassment is turning India's higher education into hell

Our chronic inability to confront exploitation and intellectual indifference to protect victims need to change.

 |  4-minute read |   06-01-2016
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An increasing number of cases is coming to light where research scholars are being subjected to victimisation, violence and sexual abuse by professors, essentially by male professors. While India is still evolving from its patriarchal mindset, this signals a rapidly deteriorating social system bereft of values. Creating safe havens for PhD students to eliminate exploitation by professors and to ensure students are not forced to become victims of sexual abuse to earn their degrees remains integral to the education system.

The system of higher education in India begs for reforms. The sexual harassment at workplace act 2013 is yet to be adopted by many premier institutions in an appropriate manner. In the Gazette of India dated April 23, 2013, the act came into force to provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment. The Gazette reads as, "sexual harassment results in violation of the fundamental rights of a woman to equality under articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India and her right to life to live with dignity under article 21 of the Constitution and right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business which includes a right to a safe environment free from sexual harassment."

The way women are respected and treated is a direct reflection of the society we are growing up in. Often so, research scholars have to go through a very difficult time saying yes to professors just to buy peace with them. Some are made to run errands for them, some are threatened that they will never get their degrees, others are victimised into sexual abuse, others are asked to pay a heavy sum of money - the list is never ending. We are speaking about the so-called intelligent and educated class of society where future minds are to be groomed. When the educated elite of India undertake such practices, what bearing does it have on the students?

Many professional institutes do not have active committees to check sexual harassment where serious questions can be raised. The ministry of HRD roles in issuing a directive in the way in which the committee could perform and a time frame to set up non-existent ones should be given.

All female candidates should be given direct 24/7 access to the special department set up to look into sexual abuse. This department in each institute could include external members for want of neutrality and justice so that the cases do not get twisted.

Very recently, we heard Adwaita Das, an alumna of Film and Television Institute of India and Jadavpur University, go on record to say that her professor had sexually harassed her and that she would submit a report to women's rights' activists and file a legal suit against the professor.

In another incident, JNU terminated the services of one faculty because he sexually harassed a female candidate under his supervision. Only last week, Union HRD minister Smriti Irani informed the Lok Sabha that 25 cases of sexual harassment were reported from JNU in 2013-14, the highest among 104 higher education institutes from where such matters came up, according to the UGC. 50 percent of the 101 sexual harassment complaints filed in 16 education institutions in Delhi were from JNU according to Swati Maliwal, chief, Delhi Commission for Women.

Few years ago, a Mangalore University professor was caught red-handed by the Lokayukta for taking a bribe from a research scholar in order to clear the papers. Such incidents are rampant in the country and research scholars remain at the mercy of well-meaning individuals who take up their fight to give a fitting end to such criminal intimidation. Medical and engineering colleges see a lot of instances of sexual violence and other forms of intimidation by the professors on their students. Higher education in India requires radical surgery and it is but appropriate that the UGC, the ministry of HRD and the Association of Indian Universities wake up to address such concerns without a booster dose.

We have known our challenges, heard about them and talked about them for years, what has stopped us from meeting such challenges is not sound policy and sensible planning, but our chronic avoidance of confronting such people and intellectual indifference to protect others.

It is time research scholars and post-graduates became very vocal about any untoward incident, be it inappropriate touch, a stare, sexual abuse, threat or bribery and immediately report the issue not only to the university authorities, but also the police, their family and friends so that it builds a cumulative pressure on the culprit to be brought to book and not let the case be hushed up.

It is also time that we witnessed institutional reforms and ensured that the promise of safeguarding women employees against sexual harassment is delivered.

Writer

Edmond Fernandes and Homolata Borah Edmond Fernandes and Homolata Borah @edmondfernandes

Edmond Fernandes is CEO, Center for Health and Development, Mangalore. Homolata Borah is research scholar, Center for the Study of Regional Development, JNU, New Delhi.

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