Sexual harassment complaint committees in Delhi University colleges are conspicuous by their absence, as a reality check shows
The Facebook list with the names of ‘sexual predators’ in academia, unveiled last year, broke the silence around sexual harassment on campuses and the fairness of complaint committees.
Interacting with students of various colleges in Delhi University (DU), the puzzled responses from students showed that a large chunk of students hardly even know about the sexual harassment complaint committees mandated by University Grants Commission (UGC). The situation was no different in colleges like Ramjas, Kirori Mal and Miranda which claim to have complaint committees that enjoy credibility and a history of fighting against sexual harassment.
This prompted us to dig deeper to find out how serious is a university with 77 affiliated colleges and 2.5 lakh students in addressing sexual harassment on campus. It was disappointing to know that there is only small minority of institutions that sustain the due process while a majority of them are shirking responsibility by putting the blame on trashing of Ordinance 15 (D) in 2003. Ordinance 15(D): Prohibition and Punishment for Sexual Harassment was a policy implemented in DU aiming to create a harassment-free environment. Considering the ways in which power relations function in colleges and the university, the ordinance ensured that the complaint committees were independent of executive authorities.
However, the policy was scrapped in the wake of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Consequently, UGC sent out a notification in 2016 insisting that all Higher Educational Institutions (HEI) should form an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to address sexual harassment on campus.
Findings from our research
Although the UGC regulation insists that “Every Executive Authority shall constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) with an inbuilt mechanism for gender sensitization against sexual harassment”, a majority of colleges in DU have a different story to tell. Out of 77 colleges, 23 colleges didn’t respond to our repeated calls and emails. In rest of the colleges, 53 colleges have complaint committees in place while one college doesn’t have a complaint committee at all. When asked if they follow the UGC guidelines, we got ‘yes’ from all these colleges. However, our further questions about the committees revealed a contrary picture.
The ICC constitution insist certain measures to make ICC more accessible to students such as “publicly notify the provisions against sexual harassment and ensure their wide dissemination… “display prominently at conspicuous places or Notice Boards the penalty and consequences of sexual harassment…, contact details of members of Internal Complaints Committee and complaints procedure”…..”the process of filing a complaint against sexual harassment in a university and the details of the law..” and so on.
We learnt that out of 54 colleges, three colleges neither have a complaint boxes nor flex hoardings on campus. Five colleges haven’t even displayed the names of committee members on their official website while another seven colleges have outdated names of their members. Furthermore, 27 colleges haven’t published the contact numbers of their members on website. Meanwhile, one college has given the email address of the presiding officer alone while another displayed the phone number of only the presiding officer.
The ambiguity regarding the election of student representatives to the committee has been considered as a major reason for students’ ignorance about ICC. Although the ICC clause says that “three students, if the matter involves students, who shall be enrolled at the undergraduate, master’s, and research scholar levels respectively, elected through transparent democratic procedure…,” it doesn’t mention how the election should be done. This has been a serious lapse from the side of college administration as 25 college committees are devoid of student representatives. Out of 25, 11 colleges said they consider their students’ union members as ICC members whenever required. Surprisingly, only 14 colleges have elected student representatives in their committee.
Let us now look at one of the most important clauses in ICC; “one-half of the total members of the ICC shall be women”. And in DU, committees in three colleges violate this vital clause.
Although UGC regulations insist every institute must “make students aware of the ICC and assist in sensitisation programmes,” there are only 18 colleges which hold sessions on sexual harassment during orientation.
While interviewing students in Ramjas college, a girl confessed that she was sexually harassed during her first year in college. Asked why she didn’t complain, the student said, “Because he is on a good post” and broke into tears. The element that deterred her from taking on the harasser — his position of authority — reiterates the notion that “sexual harassment is an act of power” and the power relations play around in university spaces make students vulnerable to such harassment. This testimony shows how important is that to understand the power nuances and that’s exactly why the following clauses in ICC becomes important;
“…Orientation courses for administrators conducted in HEIs must have a module on gender sensitization and sexual harassment issues. Regular workshops are to be conducted for all sections of the HEI community”. And this;
“…organise training programmes or as the case may be, workshops for the officers, functionaries, faculty and students..”
Another thing that struck us while interacting with the students is how the gender stereotypes imprison men. Boys are not socialised to recognise the harassment the way girls are; hence it is harder for them to read the signs. “We need to ask ourselves what does and does not constitute sexual harassment- and that question isn’t easy to answer,” said Tara Amrapaly, an ICC member from Kirori Mal College. One of the clauses in ICC constitution recognises this complexity in defining sexual harassment and states;
“…Wherever required, appropriately subsume the spirit of the above definitions in its policy and regulations on prevention and prohibition of sexual harassment against the employees and the students, and modify its ordinances and rules in consonance with the requirements of the Regulations..”
Also, the presiding officers we spoke to emphasised that the ICC is not gender neutral, hence doesn’t involve male students and third gender. However, clauses like;
“Act decisively against all gender-based violence perpetrated against employees and students of all sexes recognising that primarily women employees and students and some male students and students of the third gender are vulnerable to many forms of sexual harassment and humiliation and exploitation;” and
“Vulnerable groups are particularly prone to harassment and also find it more difficult to complain. Vulnerability can be socially compounded by region, class, caste, sexual orientation, minority identity and by being differently abled. Enabling committees must be sensitive to such vulnerabilities and special needs,”
These show that ICC is gender neutral on paper, but the current understanding of ICC is contrary. “We would need to fight for it because at the moment it is understood to be only for women,” said Vinita Chandra, a faculty in Ramjas, when we pointed out the aforementioned clauses.
Although things have started changing with DU insisting all colleges to have ICC student election, faculty remain unsatisfied, saying that the current ICCs lack independence, and college administration has the authority to nominate members.
This article was first published in Newslaundry.