Many incidents of sexual harassment remain unreported, as students are unaware of the existence of these committees, thus justice cannot prevail for the victims
About 40% of the country's universities- both public and private –are yet to form sexual harassment prevention committees- complying with the directive issued by the High Court ten years ago.
Many incidents of sexual harassment remain unreported, as students are unaware of the existence of these committees, thus justice cannot prevail for the victims.
According to the data compiled by University Grants Commission (UGC), among the 103 private, 45 public universities of the country, only 52 and 35 universities respectively have established sexual harassment prevention committees.
However, UGC officials said, as they lack manpower, they cannot perform regular monitoring, and surveillance of these committees. They added, universities which are yet to start academic activities but have secured approval, have not formed sexual harassment complaint committees.
UGC's initiative against sexual harassment
Addressing the issue, UGC Chairman Prof Kazi Shahidullah said: “However, we are now in a zero tolerance policy to prevent sexual harassment in all public, and private universities. Committees will be formed, and perpetrators will face action once they come into operation.”
UGC in February this year also formed a two-member monitoring cell to ensure that sexual harassment prevention committees at universities work efficiently, and effectively.
The commission along with UN Women are working in four universities - Jahangirnagar University (JU), Rajshahi University(RU), Shahjalal University of Science and Technology(SUST), and East West University (EWU) - under the Building Capacity to Prevent Violence Against Women (BCPVAW) project, which will end very soon.
The UGC will sign a new project with UN Women shortly to deal with sexual harassment issues, stated Mauli Azad, a deputy director of UGC, and a member of UGC formed monitoring cell.
10 years since HC's directive
The High Court in 2009 issued guidelines to help prevent sexual harassment at educational institutions, and workplaces.
It ordered to form committees at every organization, and educational institutions which will investigate allegations of sexual harassment, and recommend measures.
According to the court’s directives, the committees would have at least five members, mostly women, and if possible, be headed by a woman.
It had also asked all the universities to undertake awareness-raising programs on sexual harassment, including holding seminars, and discussions.
How effective are the existing committees?
Officials said, the existing committees are failing to have effective impact in preventing sexual harassment incidents in campuses, and most of the students are largely unaware of the existence of these committees.
According to a study conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh in May, 2018 , a lack of awareness about the guidelines regarding sexual harassment among students is a major barrier to its effective implementation.
Even in institutions where a sexual harassment committee exist, the students are mostly unaware of it, the study added.
ActionAid surveyed students of 30 public, and private universities, there 84% of them said they are unaware of a sexual harassment committee in their respective university, while 87% of the students had no knowledge about the 2009 High Court order, and only 13% had merely heard about the guidelines provided by the court, without knowing any further details.
Among the three private universities whose authorities were interviewed for the study, only one university had a properly functioning complaint committee, although compared to the number of students, the number of complaints were very low.
But the two public universities whose authorities were interviewed, both institutions had a functional sexual harassment committee.
Compared to the large number of students studying in those public universities, the number of complaints lodged in a year was particularly disproportionate, stated the study.
Dhaka Tribune found some students only lodge a complaint if the harassment is a major one, and they usually do not file a complaint if the incident is of a verbal harassment.
Rehnuma Tabassum, a biotechnology student at EWU said she does not know how the sexual harassment committee functions, or what are the policies when general students file written complaints to the proctorial body of the institution if anything happens.
When asked what did she know regarding her university's sexual harassment committee, Dhaka University student Musbassira Noumi said she had heard about such a committee, but the university did not promote it to create awareness among the students.
Jannat Nesha, a student of University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) said they do see a warning notice in the university notice board on sexual harassment policy.
Dhaka University teacher Prof Shahnaz Huda, who said most students consider physical harassment to be actual harassment, but they are not well aware about verbal, non-verbal harassment which is happening across the country every day.
“Even if there is a case of harassment, most girls do not lodge complaints because of social stigma, fear of being blamed for provoking the incident, as well as loss of reputation,” added Huda, also an adviser to ULAB's sexual harassment committee.
“Public university students fear they might lose their hall seat which then will create more chances of harassment,” she said.
UGC wants more manpower
UGC officials said the number of complaints were very few last year, and no cases were filed regarding sexual harassment.
Adding to which, lack of manpower is hindering the commission's efforts to regularly monitor the effectiveness of the guidelines set to prevent sexual harassment, added the officials.
Mahtabul Hakim, coordinator (Violence against Women) of UN Women, said they found that students are more reactive to sexual harassment incidents if the respective university authorities showed a proactive attitude towards combating the menace.
“Most students (of both public, private universities) are unaware of the existence of sexual harassment committees, and their functions. But, we cannot monitor all universities because of lack of manpower. We need more people to ensure proper monitoring in university campuses,” UGC Deputy Director Mauli Azad commented.
Azad also said that the investigations into sexual harassment allegations against influential teachers tend to go astray, as the university syndicate are often reluctant to take the complaints into cognizance.
“Instead of a guideline on sexual harassment, a law would have been more appropriate,” she added.