Where does it all begin?

Simran Luthra

Tehelka: High-Profile Sex Scandal Highlights Harassment At Indian WOrkplaces

Delhi University student accuses IFFI official of sexual harassment

Women need to speak up against sexual harassment

In 1997, the Supreme Court of India issued guidelines for all Indian universities to provide protection of the basic human right of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment and abuse at workplaces. Efforts for implementation were made by the UGC (University Grants Commission), but like most other legal mandates, actual implementation has been weak. Sexual harassment is rampant on university campuses across the country. In fact, a survey conducted on gender relations on the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) campus revealed that a mere 4 per cent of female students reported to never have been harassed; while 30 per cent of male students said that they had faced some form of sexual harassment. A recent piece in The Times of India (September, 2013) states that in the city of Hyderabad alone, over 500 cases of sexual abuse of minors in educational institutions have been reported since June of this year. The infamous Delhi rape case and the more recent Tehelka scandal show how ingrained discrimination against women is in Indian society.

In a progressive move, the CBSE has mandated the setting up of Sexual Harassment Committees in schools. But the story is similar; implementation by school authorities either hasn’t happened, or even if it has, remains superficial. Ask yourself – if you are a teacher, are you aware of a sexual harassment cell in your school? And if there is an official one, how active and accessible is it?

The presence of something like a ‘Sexual Harassment Cell’ or a committee might actually be quite disturbing. It makes the possibility and the reality of this kind of unpleasantness all too close for comfort. But the important thing is to realize that sexual harassment exists; and not just in higher education or at work places. It is not part of the adult world alone. The case of a principal of a high profile school in Hyderabad raping a female student in 2010 became quite a scandal, but it would be erroneous to believe that it was the exception rather than the norm. In fact, perhaps it did not receive as much attention as it should have. As teachers and educators it is our duty and responsibility to be cognizant of such realities and possibilities, and safeguard against them. The establishing of a mechanism is a step in that direction.

Sexual harassment at schools can be of various kinds: 1) Sexual harassment at the workplace, viz. teachers or other staff being harassed by some other staff members, i.e., other adults; 2) sexual harassment of students by other students; 3) sexual harassment of students by teachers or other staff; 4) sexual harassment of teachers or staff by students. While some of these forms are more commonly acknowledged and spoken of, instances of sexual harassment of teachers or staff by students may actually be a certain kind that many may find hard to believe, but they do happen. Teachers have reported to have experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour by students and not known who to talk to about such incidents.

Fortunately, the discourse in India seems to be changing, and the media is talking more about the need to pay attention to awareness of sexual harassment in schools. The Vishaka guidelines which define sexual harassment at the workplace, is something that all teachers and educators must be familiar with. Very often, when such instances occur, people find it difficult in the first place to identify whether or not they fall within the ambit of sexual harassment. The guidelines make it easy to recognize harassment:

The Vishakha guidelines define sexual harassment including unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:
a) Physical contact and advances;
b) A demand or request for sexual favours;
c) Sexually coloured remarks;
d) Showing pornography;
e) Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature

The various state governments try to react to instances of sexual harassment in varying and at times amusing ways. In the September of 2013, the BJP reportedly recommended girls being provided with overcoats in Puducherry to prevent sexual harassment. They also suggested that only women teachers should be appointed in schools to reduce instances of harassment. The one progressive move suggested was the introduction of an online complaint booking facility for girl students to complain about such incidents. Again, this year in Patna the police have tried to establish a mechanism to prevent and penalize sexual harassment. A mobile group of police inspectors are expected to move around schools and colleges, outside parks and malls to catch boys harassing girls.

But the question is, are these the best ways to go about the mammoth problem, which plagues Indian society as a whole? As teachers and educators we get so taken in with the tasks of ensuring that children master concepts and knowledge, that the other, equally or more important aspects of ensuring that their awareness regarding these real-world issues are addressed, get ignored. But even before we attempt to ‘teach’ them, we need to engage in some serious thinking, soul-searching, and educating ourselves.

There are many popular myths related to sexual harassment which do great harm, for instance, that adults need to be familiar with. Some of the most popular ones are: Children make up stories and imagine things sexual in nature and hence do not need to be taken seriously when they complain about sexual harassment; boys do not get raped or sexually abused; women can never be perpetrators of sexual abuse; children are safe with family members. I would urge all our readers to get a copy of Pinki Virani’s path-breaking book Bitter Chocolate which deals with child sexual abuse in India and contains horrifying true stories of child sexual abuse in India. It is a must-read for all those working and dealing with children. This perhaps could be a start in the direction of the much-needed self-education that we as teachers and educators constantly need in order to do a meaningful and relevant job.

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The author works in the field of education. She is doing her Masters in Education from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and is interested in the areas of gender, language learning, and teacher development. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.