Making campuses safer

The University Grants Commission advisory to institutions of higher education to make campuses safe for women students in the aftermath of the Delhi rape case addresses a neglected issue. Sexual harassment and even attacks on campus often go unreported because educational institutions do not have proper systems in place to monitor behaviour, counsel students, record complaints and initiate proceedings. It is important for universities and colleges, therefore, to view security not solely as the prevention of high-profile attacks, but as a continuum that protects against various forms of sexual harassment. Fear interferes with a female student’s ability to pursue the full spectrum of educational, cultural and social activities on campus and must be eliminated. The university system in India does not provide an explicit understanding of what constitutes statutory sexual misconduct and harassment. This is particularly true of undergraduate campuses where the youngest students arrive each year and are in need of both counselling and careful supervision. The Supreme Court guidelines in the Vishaka case define sexual harassment and provide a good base on which to build protective systems, but the Centre has been slow to incorporate these into law; it is only now that the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Work Place Bill 2010 is going through the parliamentary process.

In the West, enlightened university administration has gone a step further by taking the specificity of campus life while defining harassment, sexual misconduct and assault. In most places, victims of sexual assault are specifically encouraged to file complaints even if they had themselves consumed alcohol or drugs at the time. This is important, given the tendency in India to blame the victim for making herself vulnerable. Equally important is the ability to seek help at any hour. Systems need to be in place for students to report an attack at any time of day. In a typical university in the United States, for instance, there is a Rape Victim Advocacy Centre, an Emergency Treatment Centre, and regular law enforcement to record a complaint and offer help. Such supportive structures should be made mandatory in Indian educational institutions. It is worth pointing out that using a position of authority against a student or employee in an educational institution to force her into any form of sexual behaviour is a serious offence in most countries. Indian universities and colleges must also make it easier for students to report all such instances without fear of retaliation. Vice-Chancellors should use the UGC advice to review their statutes and incorporate strong safeguards.

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