Sexual harassment is one of the ways in which gender discrimination and gender violence manifests itself in professional spaces and various kinds of social situations. It is imperative to acknowledge sexual harassment as something which emerges in a context where there is an unequal distribution of powers of various kinds. Thus, a comprehensive understanding of sexual harassment cases would be rendered only by examining them through the lenses of intersectionality, that is, by looking at gender along with caste, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, region and ability.
Sexual Harassment in Indian Universities
In India, sexual harassment has had a long journey in the legal system, most prominently starting with the Vishakha Guidelines in 1997 and finally reaching its peak in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. However, it is quite upsetting to know that this Act has its exceptions and becomes inapplicable in the state of Jammu and Kashmir as well as in areas of other states where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, AFSPA is implemented.
Educational institutions have become one of the most fertile grounds for sexual harassment in the country. Even though there is an increasing number of women students entering various educational fields, an efficient mechanism addressing the problem of sexual harassment is still absent in many universities and institutions, public and private, across the country. Sexual harassment in educational spaces, as we are aware, endangers the right of students, research scholars and university workers to have access to equal, safe and free spaces of learning and the right to work with dignity. Thus, intimidation and harassment of this sort engenders a system which cripples the educational and professional experience and hence advancement of women and sexual minorities in general. This is a system which also refuses to ensure the emotional and psychological well-being not only of students but other individuals working in the campus, and to acknowledge the importance of the same in the premise of an educational structure.
Examining the Situation in Meghalaya
In Meghalaya, only one university, Martin Luther Christian University and two colleges, St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s college have to date, established a proper legal mechanism to tackle this problem. However, the functionality of the same in these institutions is quite unknown. It is quite alarming to see that even the oldest and biggest central university in the State, the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), still has not incorporated any of the structural mechanisms made mandatory by the UGC. A majority of the colleges affiliated to NEHU have also consequently not implemented the same. NEHU, even until recently, had seen rampant incidents of alleged sexual harassment and the university continues to use the Women’s Cell as the qualified body to deal with sexual harassment cases.
Although this is a system in place, it is one which is much weaker, unprofessional and far more undemocratic than the Internal Complaints Committee provided under the Saksham Report and the UGC Directives, 2015. The key difference is that unlike the ICC, the Women’s Cell does not have legal expertise and power. As stated above, the ICC offers a ‘civil redressal mechanism’ to sexual harassment. The Saksham Report elaborates on howthe Women’s Cell should primarily focus on academic and cultural functions like running gender campaigns and sensitization programmes. Further, in strictly relying on the Women’s Cell, cases of sexual harassment against sexual minorities who do not identify as women are completely ignored.
Making our Universities More Equal
Sexual harassment is not a phenomenon which should be underestimated and treated as an intra-university issue. In fact, institutions should take cognizance of the fact that it is something which requires a proper legal and investigative system, precisely because it concerns the rights and liberties of the parties involved within a professional and public structure.
The UGC Directives, 2015 also state that non-compliance of the same would result in many punitive consequences, including de-recognition of the institution by the UGC and a complete cutting of funds from the Commission. As they currently stand, many colleges and universities in Meghalaya may confront these repercussions and lose out on their status as efficient and reliable educational institutions under the University Grants Commission. These recent moves by the UGC are encouraging institutional measures which speak of a larger acceptance of the urgency to address gender justice and work towards the prevention and extermination of sexual harassment within campuses. Such mechanisms should thus be embraced by universities to ensure a culture of safety and equality amongst students and other people working within the parameters of the university.
Words- Gertrude Lamare
This article was published in the December issue of Eclectic Northeast