The recent self-immolation by a student who had complained of sexual abuse by her teacher, brings into sharp focus the prevalence of sexual harassment in educational institutions and the lack of political will to effectively address the problem.
Several years ago, after a spate of cases of sexual harassment at work places in different parts of the country, a public interest litigation was filed resulting in a judgement which has now popularly come to be called the Vishaka Judgement. The Judgement required that every workplace should set up a committee to prevent and deal with sexual harassment at the workplace. To avoid the fear in approaching the committee that ,could result if the accused was a person in power in the institution, the Supreme Court required that the Committee must have at least one external person who is versed with issues of sexual harassment. The Committee is required to be chaired by a woman and must have not less than 50 per cent of its composition as women, so as to ensure certain comfort levels when the girl or woman is narrating her problem.
There seems to be much reluctance to constitute this Committee. The initial response of many an educational institution was that this does not happen in our institutions and hence there is no need. But sociological studies, the world over, show that if there is no mechanism to deal with a particular problem, and the problem is of a sensitive nature, it will not even get reported. It is after the mechanisms are put in place that at least some people begin to come forward. Today most colleges have set up sexual harassment prevention committees in their institution. But this is yet to happen with schools. There have been teachers who have been mass abusers. One remembers this case of a teacher in a mixed school who used to send the boys out of the class and take a scale and measure the little girls’ private parts. The sexual harassment is often more pronounced with one student or a few students. However, the Directorate of Education has only got one Committee at the level of the Directorate and there is no localised committee at the school level. It is also a lamentable reality that when courts or laws require committees to be set up, if they do set up such committees, there is somehow a de-activation of the committee in most places and any member of the committee pursuing its activation is often brushed away stating that there is no case yet.
Some educational institutions even came up with the excuse that the educational institution cannot be construed as a workplace under the Vishaka Judgement. A letter petition written by organizations across the country to the Supreme Court after the MS University at Baroda in Gujarat had failed to constitute a committee in terms of Vishaka Judgement even after a Ph. D. student at the University complained of sexual harassment by her guide was converted into a public interest litigation.
In that case, the Court reiterated that the educational institution comes within the ambit of Vishaka Judgement while also directing all States to file affidavits about the setting up of Committees. It is an irony that the very BJP-led Government which was in power at that time in Goa and was fined Rs. 10,000 is today still dragging its feet on women’s rights issues and has maintained the status quo in so far as budgeting for the provision of rights based mechanisms for women and children is concerned. Pray of what use is the “laad” (excessive showering of love by way of rupees one lakh to a woman when she gets married), over a laxmi (meant to mean a girl who brings wealth) who will not reach the age of marriage or have no dignity left even to ensure that the amount of rupees one lakh that she gets is quickly (mis)appropriated by her husband and in-laws immediately after marriage?
Where the Committees are in fact set up, what is often forgotten, except for a few salutary Committees and heads of educational institutions, is that the Committees set up under the Vishaka Judgement have a dual role – to prevent and to deal with cases of sexual harassment. Even the role of dealing with cases of sexual harassment effectively can have a deterrent effect. This means that if any student or teacher reports a case of sexual harassment in an educational institution to the principal or to any teacher, it is the principal’s duty to ensure that the case is promptly referred to the Complaints Committee.
The student must know, as part of an orientation conducted in the school or college, as to what facilities are there for her safety and for dealing with any problems that are adversely affecting her safety. She must know about the Committee and who is on it and how she can approach the Committee or any of its members and what is broadly the procedure that will be followed by the Committee.
On the other hand the Committee set up in an educational institution must know that it is set up because a woman’s right to study or work in an educational institution is affected if she is subjected to sexual harassment, or if she is threatened with less marks or denied remedial classes or benefits of the teacher’s teaching or in any other way, if she does not give in to sexual harassment, whether or not it has a bearing on her health. To the extent that it has a bearing on her mental health, the Committee must know that it must place before the school the requirement that there must be a counselor who can facilitate the child to deal with the problem being faced at the hands of the very person who has been projected to her as someone who she must respect and obey and learn from. This is not about using the medium of the counselor for the absolutely invalidating settlements that many a girl who complains may be pressurized into. Every school must know that it has to have a school counselor, for which there has to be an appropriate budget allocation for the job of the counselor is not easy and is certainly very time consuming as one has had occasion to see.
Last but not the least, the Law Department of the Government of Goa must thoroughly read all the Judgements that followed the Vishakha Judgement and the CCS-CCA Rules to understand that the Vishaka Judgement has laid down laudable guidelines, but the same are not elaborate and that there is a need for clarity sake to flesh out the guidelines through institutional policies and statutes and it cannot wish away or dampen any proactive endeavours by educational institutions or complaints committees by stating that the Vishaka Judgement is enough to take care of the matter.