To build confidence among victims to file complaints against teachers, there needs to be a student movement to strengthen their position.
Dr Vinita Chandra of Ramjas College is among the most vocal advocates against sexual harassment on campuses and played an active role in the struggle to set up redressal mechanisms in Delhi University. Excerpts from an interview.
The sexual harassment redressal system has been functioning on campus for quite a while now, but some students are still clueless about its existence. What do you think are the reasons?
Vinita Chandra: I think that sexual harassment is just not a serious issue for the majority of people. In India, you call sexual harassment “eve-teasing”, where the woman is usually held responsible, which in turn dilutes the issue. When you go and talk to people about it, they are surprised to hear that staring, stalking, etc, are actually criminal activities.
The Sexual Harassment Ordinance is called ‘Prevention and Punishment of Sexual Harassment’ and while people are willing to look at the “punishment” part of it, they don’t seem to understand that unless you spread awareness to prevent it, it won’t even be recognised as sexual harassment.
Even women fail to recognise staring, texting, stalking, etc, as harassment since this behaviour has been normalised and people have been desensitised towards it. The need is to spread awareness to acknowledge that the things we are enduring every day comprise sexual harassment, and through this to let people know about the ordinance.
Why do so many colleges still not have a committee even though it is enforced by law?
I think that even when colleges recognise the issue of rampant sexual harassment on campus, there is no political will to deal with it. If you compare it with how seriously ragging has been taken in the past few years, the law is being enforced, boards are put all over campuses, etc, but we don’t see the same enthusiasm for prevention of sexual harassment.
One reason is that many think that women getting an education is progressive enough, and harassment is something which they have to bear as part of stepping outside the house and studying. The administration itself has no political will to implement the law because unlike ragging, it is seen as affecting only women.
Cases involving people in position of power or faculty members can get complicated and may lead to impunity for the harasser. Is this bias inevitable? How does one avoid it?
I don’t think it is “inevitable”, but bias will definitely be there. More than the bias, I think 90 per cent of students just don’t complain against the harasser if they are in a position of power.
Sexual harassment in the classroom is not uncommon and can be in the form of toxic masculinity of professors, making comments about girl students, preferential treatment of boys, etc. All these things, because of the power relations between students and teachers, are not reported because students are too intimidated to complain.
But that does not make it inevitable. In Ramjas College, students filed a case against the vice principal, one of the most powerful persons in college, who had been molesting boys for 20 years.
In this particular case, a fair inquiry was held but that does not mean that a fair inquiry will be held everywhere, especially with the new 2013 law by which the principal is supposed to pick the committee members instead of holding democratic elections. This further discourages students from filing complaints against teachers.
To build confidence among students to file complaints against teachers there needs to be a students’ movement to strengthen the position of student victims. This is especially important because in most cases where teachers are the perpetrator, it is not limited to one person.
If you look at the academicians accused of sexual harassment, you will see that there are always multiple victims harassed by the same person. In the Ramjas case, when the boys finally started talking openly about it, they realised there were many of them. A movement among students, which gains momentum as a campaign in taking that complaint forward, can be very effective and offers support to the victims.
In the duration of the processes, a student might get intimidated and scared. Is the system sensitive towards the mental health of the victim?
The law says that you have to provide a counsellor for the victim. Any sexual harassment complaint is bound to be distressing for the victim because you have to repeat what happened. One of the things in Ordinance XV-D is that the victim should never have to come face-to-face with the harasser. So the system is actually aimed at protecting the victim and providing counselling.
But in addition, what is essentially needed is a support group within the college itself, which is only possible through awareness. Presently, the victim finds it hard to get people to believe in her complaint at the very outset. If a group of students and teachers believes in the victim, the ordeal can be less distressing.
MS: What is the most important aspect of the sexual harassment issue that you’ve gathered with your experience on the committee?
VC: I’ve gathered that the “prevention part” is more important than punishment. In most cases, the punishment for unsolicited messages or calls, staring, even stalking is never enough. At the college ICC level, it will not get more than a written apology or maybe a few days’ suspension. It’s really hard to have rustication.
But prevention involves two things – one, a wide campaign to get students to talk about what constitutes sexual harassment and consent on a continual basis to understand the issues, and second, for women to recognise sexual harassment and define it.
The most important thing, however, is that men need to realise that the behaviour they have learned and internalised under the patriarchal system is undesirable and unacceptable. For this, real-time discussion among students guided by someone with experience in the field, where the men listen to what women have to say, works most effectively.
Any advice you would like to give students regarding the redressal system?
I say this every year to every class: you don’t deserve to live in fear for even one minute. So the minute you feel that something is making you uncomfortable, don’t wait for it to happen the second or third time. Immediately speak to somebody in the redressal committee, or to someone you trust.
Most of the time, the moment someone speaks to the harasser and points out the act as harassment for which there are serious consequences, the harassment stops.
Students come to college to study and need to have a mind free of fear for that. If you’re sitting in class in fear of your harasser, there is no way you can learn anything. So the fact that there is a redressal system should not be taken lightly by any student at all. The minute you make that complaint, you become the person with power and know that you can eliminate anything that is bothering or instilling fear in you.
This article was first published in Newslaundry