What is “sexual harassment”? The answer is simple: Any kind of unwanted activity directed at a particular person, which is sexually offensive in nature, is sexual harassment.
It could happen in different forms: Verbal, non-verbal, or physical -- such as spreading rumours, lewd jokes, comments on personal choices, and unwanted physical contact.
As society advances, people are using new ways to harass others via things like fake photos, social media, text, email, etc. University students, especially female students, are some of the primary victims of sexual harassment.
In Bangladesh, now and then, we hear about some harassment of university students by their own professors, but they are not the only victims. Moreover their professors are not the only offenders.
A university student often gets harassed by classmates, seniors, lovers, and in some cases, even by the staff. It is also true that the harasser could be of the same sex as the victim. To stand against this social menace, we can take precautions, but even that fails to guarantee its prevention -- but the most effective measures can be taken by the victim.
When facing any sort of harassment, the best way to deal with it is to speak up. One has to speak instantly when it occurs, and tell the harasser in a definitive manner to stop doing it, regardless of how trivial the offense may seem. Because, when someone does not protest small matters, it often paves the way for serious offenses.
And sometimes, the offender is unaware of the fact that his/her actions are hurting someone else or that for someone else, it is an invasion of personal space. In those cases, if the victim speaks up, then the harasser understands his own fault.
And if the victim feels shy about talking to the offender, then this could be handled in several other ways too.
Students are the ones who can take a strong stand against sexual harassment
Victims could write anonymous letters or send an email to the harasser explaining the incident that troubled her/him. And it is always a good idea to keep a copy of the letter or email as it can be used as evidence in the future, in case the offender does not cooperate.
If things start to get out of hand, then students must speak up, loudly and clearly. In many cases, the offender gets scared when someone asks loudly to stop, because he/she fears that someone may hear and come to the rescue.
Fortunately, we now live in an era of technology where victims can easily use that for his/her defense -- by voice recording, taking pictures, and making videos.
And to be on the safe side, victims should write down the offensive act in a diary or in an electronic device with all the details.
It is always a good idea to inform someone else about the harassment, like a close friend or a classmate, so that someone else can also look out for the victim and at times can speak on behalf of the victim.
The next step is to involve the appropriate university authority in the matter.
Educational institutions can do a lot to help victims. Every institute should have a definitive policy on how to handle such matters.
Often, the victim gets blamed for the offender’s crime. University authorities have to be very cautious, and make sure that it does not happen.
If the university doesn’t have such a policy, then students should talk to the faculty about it, and ask the policy-makers to make one. Even then, if they fail to do so, students should take further action.
University students can also increase awareness by arranging seminars, workshops, street plays, etc around the campus. They can distribute informational leaflets and put up posters so that every student knows what they can do when they face sexual harassment.
Break the taboo
The more we talk about it and let people know about it, the better.
But this isn’t always that easy, especially when the media is dragged in. Although there are some news media that are concerned about the victim and hide his/her identity, there are others that fail to conceal the victim’s identity for petty profits, which makes the life of the victim all the more difficult.
This is mostly why many victims do not want to seek legal justice.
Sadly, society is of no help. Most people try to blame the victim for the harasser’s offense, or say it is a plot to extort money. So unless we evolve into a good, supportive society, victims will think twice before taking the matter to the police.
Considering the effects on the victim, the best way to deal with sexual harassment is to have an ironclad policy in the university and a safe, supportive, non-judgmental environment for the victims so they can easily get the assistance and justice they deserve.
The government can help
The government can take many practical steps such as including the topic in textbooks, requiring every educational institute to have a strict policy about it, establishing a special hotline to report incidences of sexual harassment, providing shelter, and ensuring safe passage of the victims to normal life.
Students themselves are the ones who can take a strong stand against the sexual harassment that goes on within their own institutions. They have to stick together to fight sexual harassment. They have to support each other and always be conscious of what is going on around them.
If students set an example for society, other people will soon follow. Hopefully, one day, we will be able to live in a beautiful society free from such horrible sexual harassment.
Niaz Islam Arif is a freelance contributor.