Despite the closure of colleges and universities due to Covid-19, there is still no sign of a declining trend in sexual harassment complaints. In fact, over the years, the number of reported cases of sexual harassment in higher education institutions has increased.
According to the data collected by the University Grants Commission (UGC), in 2017-18, 104 sexual harassment cases were reported by the 384 colleges and universities that submitted the annual report on sexual harassment in their institutions. As many as 79 cases of sexual harassment were reported in 2018-19, while this increased to 299 in 2019-20. While the number of cases in 2020-21 fell to 103 during the Covid-induced lockdown, there were still or nearly equal compared to 2017-18 and 2018-19 figures.
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However, reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg as very few cases of sexual harassment are reported in the country. In most colleges and universities, especially those in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, there is no Internal Complaints Board (ICC). An ICC is mandated by the UGC under sexual harassment of women at work [Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal] or PoSH law.
Teachers unaware of ICC
“What do you mean by ICC? I have not heard anything about the ICC or any such commission for the prevention of sexual harassment,” said Gita Kumari (name changed on request), who has been teaching for more than seven years at a government-run Bundelkhand University in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh and claims not to have heard of the recovery mechanism.
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“If a student or a teacher is faced with an incident of sexual harassment, we either take it with a senior female professor or sometimes with the vice chancellor,” she said.
“I wish in reality there was such a committee or a mechanism. If there really had been an ICC, the lives of many teachers and students would have been much earlier in the institute. It is very important to have such a committee,” she added.
Many other students and educators, such as Gita, have made similar claims about the lack of ICCs in their educational institutions in both private and government schools.
UGC acknowledged that despite reminders, not many universities and colleges have functional ICCs. Officials said, “There’s not much we can do about it other than raise awareness among the educational institutions.” Commission also cuts points in ranking framework for absence of ICC, but lack of awareness among teachers, students predominates.
The UGC has not only ordered universities and colleges time and again to set up an ICC, but has also asked for a special cell to be formed to carry out gender awareness programs. Furthermore, UGC has asked all universities and their affiliated colleges to complete Gender Audit compliance on the SAKSHAM portal. Despite multiple advisories, several educational institutions across the country do not have functional ICCs on their campuses, a UGC official claims.
Speaking to News18, the UGC official said: “Not many universities and colleges have functional ICCs. We regularly send advice to educational institutions to set up ICC and ask them to send us an annual ICC report, which we then upload on the SAKSHAM Portal. But despite our advice, compliance is much less. We can’t do much about it, except raise awareness among educational institutions. Educational institutions should know that if they don’t have a functioning ICC, they will get low marks in the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) and other rankings.”
Lack of action against defaulters
Under the PoSH law, an institution that does not form an ICC can be punished with a fine of Rs. 50,000. Repeated failures in the establishment of an ICC may result in the penalty being doubled, and in certain cases the law also provides for the revocation of the license or registration of such institutions.
Activists believe the law has imposed appropriate penalties against those who break the law, but it is due to the listless attitude of officials that the implementation is poor.
Women’s rights activist Yogita Bhayana, who has served on six committees set up to deal with complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace, said most educational institutions have not even established an ICC and are not conducting awareness campaigns.
“According to our surveys, most places in Delhi do not have an ICC. The law is only on paper, in reality there is no implementation. The district collectors should check the same, but that is not being done because their offices also do not have a functioning ICC,” she said.
“The law can be used as a preventative measure to curb sexual harassment. It is also a measure to speed up procedures. If there is good knowledge of an ICC under the PoSH Act, crimes against women can be reduced.” said Bhayana.
Women’s right activist Kondaveeti Satyavati of Bhumika Women’s Collective, suggests, “almost everyone in the country knows about polio drops just because of efficient government campaigns. So the government can do the same to prevent sexual harassment of women.”
‘Situation worse in private institutions’
Speaking to News18, Rekha, chairman of the National Women’s Commission, said: “People need to know that sexual harassment is not just touching, but also physical, verbal and mental harassment. Sometimes victims are unable to recognize that they are indeed the victim. Since they are also hesitant to talk about it, the case is not registered ”
She added: “While some major universities and colleges have ICCs, the situation is worse with private institutes, including colleges and universities. This is where the owners of the institution are made the VCs and chancellors. In places like this, there is no one around to support them.” We want to investigate these. The commission has written to several district collectors requesting different ICCs in their districts, but few provide us with data.”
The chairman also said that there are several loopholes in the ICCs that need to be addressed to make them more efficient. These suggestions include increasing ICC members from four to five for a fair decision, settling the complaint in 60 days instead of 90 days, removing the provision for mediation between the two parties, and increasing the limit on submitting the complaint from three to six months.
The chairman said: “We have already sent these suggestions to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Women and Child Development, but so far we have not received a response.”
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