No Safe Campus

Delhi University has had a long history of sexual harassment on campus: in classrooms, laboratories, offices, faculty rooms, corridors and cafeterias, and on its streets.

This year (2004), a progressive policy to address sexual harassment was finally put in place through an ordinance issued by the university. But recent developments in St Stephen's college have put the clock back for all women on campus, as well as those who have been struggling to make the university a safe place for women.

Until the late 1980s, women - and occasionally men - had no name for their experience of sexual harassment. There was humiliation, fear, loss of confidence and other complex emotions. And when identifiable men in the university directed harassment against specific women, these women took recourse to private solutions such as not going to the classroom or laboratory, quitting their job or even committing suicide.

In effect, the fundamental right of a woman to be in a public space as part of her work and study was decisively curtailed. Also, some women's private solutions to a very public manifestation of power (sexual harassment) on campus, led to no perceptible changes in the everyday experiences of all women. And in all of the private solutions, it was the women victims who paid the price of the harassment rather than the harasser.

In this context, whenever attempts were made to actively resist sexual harassment, these resulted in the isolation and defamation of the women who dared to bring it to public notice. Over the years, university authorities have refused to recognize the seriousness of the problem; and meanwhile, the incidence of sexual harassment has only grown and become more widespread.

In 1996, a group of young women students in the sociology department of Delhi University decided to conduct a study on sexual harassment. The findings were shocking - 92 per cent of the women interviewed reported being sexually harassed at some time or the other during their campus life. Typically, the university authorities went into denial, but based on these findings, a small group of women and men took the initiative and started working towards a policy on sexual harassment.

Then, in 1997, came the Supreme Court of India's landmark Vishakha judgement. Besides "naming" the problem women experience at the workplace, the apex court pinned the responsibility of ensuring a non-hostile working environment on employers. It made it difficult for them to legally evade the setting up of mechanisms towards providing a safe and dignified working environment within their institutions.

Indeed, by recognizing a "hostile working environment" the court went beyond identifying the consequences of "sexual" harassment on the individual "victim" - it also recognized the debilitating effects of sexual harassment upon the entire community occupying the workplace. The court also provided a broad framework (guidelines) for creating the mechanisms of redressal that employers were expected to set up following the judgement.

For those of us working on a draft policy, the Vishakha judgement provided a useful framework within which we could address the specific characteristics of Delhi University. After six years of continuous lobbying and providing inputs to the university's own attempt to create a policy and a mechanism for the redressal of sexual harassment complaints, a policy was finally put in place in 2004 through Ordinance 15D issued by the University.

In a fundamental sense, the new ordinance addresses the question of power - unequal power - in the act of sexual harassment. It provides for: making the complaints committee completely autonomous of existing power structures; and giving the committee a representative character by ensuring that every segment of the campus - faculty, students, administrative and maintenance staff - find a place in it.

Today, however, this all-important ordinance is being jeopardized even before it has taken off.

The first shot to destroy the ordinance has been fired by St Stephen's College. Its governing body, which met in September 2004, has amended Ordinance 15D. Instead of having an elected committee (whose members would represent, and be accountable to their respective constituencies and also ensure autonomy from existing power structures), members have been either nominated or chosen on a mechanical rotational basis. This, by invoking the minority status of the college - as if there is a "minority" way of addressing sexual harassment!

Is it surprising, that those in authority - supported by a typical boys' club mentality deeply entrenched in the university - are trying to find ways to subvert a mechanism which many student groups, teachers and staff members have struggled to put in place?

Significantly, the ordinance is under threat mainly by those in authority - especially principals - who have concentrated power in their hands for far too long. Their reactions are typical: "We know how to sort things out." Meaning, that when they are confronted with complaints of sexual harassment, they will call the parents, make the boy apologies, find other ways to defuse the complaint, or use coercive authority. All of this goes against the basic principles on which the complaints committees are to be formed according to Ordinance 15D.

In the Stephen's case, what is even more surprising is that the university representatives (appointed by the office of the Vice Chancellor) to the governing body failed to uphold the statutes of the university. When the college governing body chose to amend Ordinance 15D - which, legally, only the Executive Committee of Delhi University is authorized to do - the university representatives also signed on the dotted line.

St Stephens' illegal action is not a one-off reaction by an elite institution refusing to be part of Delhi University. It is symptomatic of the ways in which those who have a stake in maintaining the "privileges" of men in institutionalized spaces find ways to erode the spirit of the Vishakha judgement and the actual statutes of Delhi University. Unless the university authorities act, such erosions are likely to continue.    


More by :  Uma Chakravarti

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