Universities failing to report sexual harassment complaints

Data compiled by the University Grants Commission (UGC) shows that only 42 public and 78 private universities have established sexual harassment prevention committees

Universities regularly fail to report incidents of sexual harassment in a timely manner, leaving the University Grants Commission (UGC) dependent on media reports to stay informed on the matter.

Most public and private universities in the country are apathetic to the prevention, monitoring and resolution of sexual harassment complaints from students and staff, UGS officials have said.

Currently, students are protesting at Chittagong University (CU) over the sexual harassment of a fellow student. 

Students are protesting at Chittagong University Dhaka Tribune

However, when asked about the incident and whether the commission is doing anything about it, UGC acting chairman Prof Dil Afroza Begum on Thursday said this correspondent was the first to raise the issue with her.

“I did not find this incident in the newspaper cuttings which were provided by the public relations cell of the commission,” she said.

Universities to blame?

In 2009, the Supreme Court issued an 11-point directive aimed at preventing sexual harassment at educational institutions and workplaces.

The court asked these organisations to form sexual harassment committees to take effective measures to prevent sexual harassment. It had also asked all the universities to undertake awareness-raising programs on sexual harassment, including holding seminars and discussions on the subject.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) was given the responsibility of overseeing the formation of committees at the universities.

However, UGC officials claim that public and private universities do not pay heed to their directives and guidelines on a monitoring of the situation.

A few months ago, the UGC formed a two-member convening committee to closely monitor and bring all universities under the scanner for any incidents relating to sexual harassment. 

However, the reluctance of the universities to provide information is making the committee’s data collection work difficult, a UGC official said.

University authorities do not file or record most incidents, let alone report them to the UGC, the official added.

On May 18, a former female student at Islamic University in Kushtia brought a sexual harassment allegation against two Dhaka University students through a written complaint to the DU Proctor’s Office.

The complainant said the DU students - Rakibul Hasan and Rafayet - sexually harassed her at Suhrawardy Udyan on the evening of May 16 while she was talking to her friends near the Shikha Chironton of the campus.

In April, the North South University (NSU) authorities launched an investigation into sexual harassment charges against a part-time faculty member of the university after relieving him of all academic activities. Some students had verbally complained about the teacher to the authorities.

However, neither incident was completely resolved.

How effective are the complaint cells?

Data compiled by the University Grants Commission (UGC) shows that only 42 public and 78 private universities have established sexual harassment prevention committees. Among them, only 41 universities have submitted reports to the UGC with a total of 26 complaints. 

Most of the complaints were lodged five to seven years ago.

Of the reports filed, 19 related some minor incidents while most of the other reports were without substance.

In May, Jahangirnagar University submitted its report for the preceding six months to the UGC, but the report mentioned a case from 2017. 

When contacted, Prof Jebunnessa, president of the university’s sexual harassment complaints committee, said the university files timely reports to the UGC but has no idea about whether the issues were solved or not.

According to a UGC report, Dhaka University, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), Rajshahi University, Chittagong University and Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) did not file a report on harassment to the commission in the last four years. 

Why do cases remain pending?

Most of the sexual harassment allegations have remained unsolved or were dropped during investigation.

Mauli Azad, a deputy director of UGC and  member of the UGC monitoring cell, said: "The complaints as framed by the university were not correct as they remain sceptical of the facts themselves."

“Sometimes, the victim files a case directly with the police station or court instead of reporting to the university sexual harassment cell. Sometimes the victims hide the issue due to social pressure,” she said.

She also acknowledged that many students remained unaware of what constitutes harassment and how to report incidents in the form of complaints.

She urged the media to circulate the High Court’s directives and create awareness to prevent sexual harassment. 

“Despite the UGC not getting proper cooperation from the universities, it monitors incidents whenever any such allegation comes from any source,” said UGC Secretary Dr Ferdous Zaman.

“We immediately contact the universities and give them strict directives to solve the issue instantly and bring the predators within the bounds of existing laws,” he said.