Ensuring women’s safety at BHU and beyond
As the students’ protest against sexual violence unfolds at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), it draws attention to the many problems that plague one of the country’s most revered institutions of higher education. These range from university policies that discriminate against women and a campus environment that seemingly allows cover for rampant sexual harassment and violence, to a state administration whose law enforcement officials have effectively proven themselves incapable of handling a sensitive situation. But as BHU vice-chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi’s response to the developments of the past week shows, there is a more deep-seated problem. It goes beyond the BHU campus and manifests itself in just about every public space, from the college canteen to the office boardroom to the train station and the public park—the routine threatening and compromise of a woman’s safety and her dignity.
In an interview to The Indian Express, Tripathi justified the discriminatory policies against women students, particularly with regard to hostel curfews on the grounds that, “security for boys and girls can never be at par.” He claimed that women are safe on campus, that his administration was doing a lot to improve security, and then blamed “outsiders” for the mess, pointing fingers at student bodies associated with Left parties for aggravating the situation. Even if one were to give him the benefit of doubt and accept at face value his assertion that the situation was deliberately politicized, Tripathi’s refusal to even acknowledge that there is a problem at hand, that sexual violence and harassment of women on- and off-campus is a reality, is frightening.
His seeing no problem with different security protocols for men and women is an example of how he has internalized the many misogynistic and patriarchal norms of society. He is no exception. He is representative of every parent who insists their daughters must be home before sundown while their sons are free to stay out late at night, and no different from every employer that sees an aggrieved employee as a “feminazi” overreacting to “harmless flirting”, and who should just quietly “settle” with the perpetrator.
Indeed, it is this mindset that has also fuelled the other ongoing instance of campus unrest in the country. On 18 September, the executive council of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) dissolved the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GScash), and replaced it with the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). On paper, both serve the same purpose. In reality, the latter is significantly weaker and unlikely to be as effective. As a largely nominated body, the ICC does not have the same moral authority or legitimacy that was enjoyed by its elected predecessor. Because GScash members were directly elected by students, teachers and the university staff, they were not at the mercy of the university administration and could be trusted to act as fair and just arbiters. This was an important factor in ensuring that the cause of women’s rights and equality was pushed forward in letter and spirit—and not just as a compliance formality.
The seeds of the GScash-ICC fracas were sown earlier when the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013—legislated after the horrific December 2012 gangrape in Delhi—diluted the landmark Vishakha guidelines upon which it was built. For example, the ICC was envisaged as a dynamic force that would actively reach out to women, work towards gender sensitization, and help in building a safe work environment. Instead, it has now become a toothless body that usually meets only when there is a complaint to investigate. The ICC has an external member but their presence isn’t mandatory.
As the Vishakha guidelines had noted, there are structural barriers that prevent women from seeking justice. Several studies conducted across India by NGOs working on women’s issues, such as Saheli, Sanhita, Sakshi, the South Asian Research and Development Initiative, the Lawyers Collective and the Yugantar Education Society, have shown that sexual harassment goes largely unreported. A student abused by her teachers or a junior assistant molested by a senior partner in the office is often reluctant to speak out for fear of being penalized in class or losing a promotion. Those who still come forward to lodge a complaint are often faced with a system loaded against them—where an internal committee of nominated members, for example, has little incentive to pursue justice.
Each of these prove that today while individuals and institutions may go through the motions of fighting for gender equality, they don’t always do it in the right spirit. Deep down, they still see the issue as an in-house administrative problem that needs to be “managed” or made to go away (or, as in the case of BHU and even JNU, a tool for political vendetta)—not a society-wide impediment that affects half of humanity and needs to be tackled head on.
Having said that, let us also acknowledge the brave young women at BHU who have stood up to an oppressive system, made themselves heard, and are fighting for a better future. The times are changing, even if ever so slowly.
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