A deafening culture of silence | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 06, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 06:23 PM, April 07, 2018

A deafening culture of silence

Last month, Star Weekend conducted an online survey to explore incidents of sexual harassment, misconduct and violence on university campuses and found that 70 percent of students from public and private universities who took part in the survey have faced some level of sexual harassment on campus. A total of 200 students from different public and private universities participated.

However, of the 144 respondents who had experienced some form of violence, as many as 69 percent of the victims did not report the incident to their respective university authorities. According to the 2009 High Court Guideline, universities are supposed to form a complaint committee to prevent sexual harassment on university campuses. But 56 percent students report that they did not even know a committee existed on their campus.

The survey also revealed that 26 percent of the students surveyed were sexually harassed by their faculty members. This includes serious allegations of faculties' harassment, such as forcefully trying to kiss female students, asking them out on dates and threatening to give poor grades in exams if refused, forcing them to dance in department functions, making inappropriate comments, flirting, ogling at girls and so on. Alarmingly, most of these cases went unreported, as students were afraid of the consequences on their grades and reputation on campus.

For example, Tania Islam (not her real name), a student of a private university, shares how she was harassed by one of her faculty members—and why she never filed a complaint, despite the severity of the offence.

“I went to his office to check my mid-term script. He was generous and worried about my poor grade. He asked me to see him in his office, if I had trouble following his lectures in class. But when I went to see him to clarify a concept I was having difficulty in understanding, he made a few inappropriate comments. I ignored them, thinking that I was being paranoid.”

In the next mid-term, she received a “D” when she was sure she would get at least a “B+”.

“When I asked him why I had been marked so harshly, he was cold—and rude, even. But in the next class, he was super nice to me, and told me that he could change my grade. Then he asked me to follow him to his room. Back in his room he pointed out how he was doing me a favour that he wouldn't do for anyone else. And then he directly asked me if I could return the favour by joining him in the upcoming weekend for some fun,” says Tania. 

“I was shocked and left his room, but I couldn't complain, as he was an immediate relative of one of the Board of Governors (BOG) members. And he is so powerful that he can even take actions against the authority I was supposed to complain to,” says Tania.

Another student from North South University also claims that she stopped going to a professor's office hours after he made inappropriate comments about her relationship status, implying interest in her. However, she did not report the incident, fearing her grades would be affected in her last semester at university and her future jeopardised. Another student from the same university alleges that she was asked to attend a party by a professor, but when she turned down his offer, she, otherwise a good student, received an exceptionally low grade. She also never reported the incident.

Following the HC's directives, the University Grant Commission (UGC) was given the responsibility to instruct and monitor whether universities have formed committees in their respective institutions. Mauli Azad, senior assistant secretary at the UGC and member secretary to the Sexual Harassment Prevention Committee, states that many universities are not following the UGC's instructions on zero tolerance on sexual harassment.“I have also heard that syndicate members give privilege to influential teachers, protecting them in case complaints are made.”

Dr Nazia Chawdhury, member secretary to the sexual harassment complaint committee at the Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST), says that students have lost faith in the committee for the past one year. “There was a case where an influential teacher verbally harassed a student on an excursion, but the syndicate members and the department's colleagues helped him get away without any punishment. They also remarked that it was nothing serious as the teacher didn't abuse the girl physically. Here, the authorities' ignorance of identifying sexual offences has directly discouraged students from coming to the committee,” she states.

In fact, 45 percent of the students surveyed replied in the negative when asked— “Would you feel comfortable to complain against sexual harassment in your university?” Most of them stated that they refrained from complaining because they fear further victimisation. A number of students of public universities reported that they were unwilling to go to the authorities because of the political affiliation of the harasser/attacker.

A first-year student at Begumganj Textile Engineering College, Noakhali, shares one such incident. She alleges she was sexually harassed in the name of ragging by a group of students who were affiliated with the ruling party. Later, the harassers ordered her to remain silent under threat of dire consequences. “What would be the point of complaining? I am a first-year student making an allegation against senior brothers with strong connections. Would I get away with complaining?” she asks, adding: “Nobody wants to bring harm to themselves.”

Star Weekend also interviewed students of different public and private universities who had faced some form of violence. A majority of them did not complain to the authorities for fear of victim-blaming.

For instance, Sadia Rahman (not her real name), a student of the University of Dhaka, was sexually harassed by one of her classmates for more than six months at a stretch. “Every other day, he would stalk me after classes and send sexually explicit text messages or crack sexist jokes in front of me. I was very ashamed about it and too scared to talk about it out loud,” says Rahman. “I thought people would blame me, not him.”

Maria Hossain, a student from a reputed private university, shares how a perpetrator had added sleeping pills in her friend's tea and later captured a video of him groping her. He later blackmailed her saying he would upload the videos, forcing her to continue physical relations with him.”

Of the respondents who had filed a complaint with the respected authorities, an overwhelming majority stated that nothing concrete came out of the complaints. Some noted that the perpetrator was simply given a verbal warning, irrespective of the severity of the offence; yet others stated that their respected authorities had taken their statements but did not follow up, for months on end; ultimately, students lost faith in the process.

According to the Sexual Harassment Prevention Committee of UGC, 30 out of 39 public universities have formed a Sexual Harassment Prevention Committee so far. On the contrary, amongst the 95 private universities, only 49 have been able to form such a committee on their campuses.

After nine years of the HC's directives, on March 11, 2018, the UGC issued a letter to all the public and private universities to report their half-yearly incidents and cases of sexual harassment within 10 working days.

Unfortunately, none of the universities submitted the form within the prescribed time limit. “Some of the universities contacted us requesting an extension of the time limit,” says Mauli Azad.

Of 159 students who responded to the question—“Are you aware of the presence of a sexual harassment complaint committee on your campus?”—only 24 percent students answered in the positive. To the subsequent question, “Do you feel that the committee is serious about such allegations?” only 19 percent stated they were confident in their committees.

Some respondents even alleged that the committee members themselves harass the female students in the name of interrogation, asking them imprudent questions about their clothing, relationships, or character. Sometimes committee members try to solve serious problems informally, discouraging victims from pursuing the complaint.

For example, a respondent alleged that a student of the University of Dhaka was harassed by the sexual harassment complaint committee members of her university while they were processing her complaint. After filing a complaint against a group of male students, she was called to give her statement to the investigation committee. There, she was asked what she was wearing when the incident took place, and why she was hanging out with a male friend. She was even told that she seemed the type who would “ask for it”. The committee members, she claimed, were all professors from different departments and included hall provosts.

When asked to comment, Prof Dr Nasreen Ahmad, Pro VC of University of Dhaka, replied that she didn't know anything about that incident. “The proctorial body might have dealt with this case and as far as I know, there are no female members on that team. If such a thing really happened, I will say there is a problem with our mindset and attitude,” she says, adding, “and this problem exists everywhere.”

However, when speaking to Star Weekend about incidents related to blackmailing, she herself openly stated that she does not believe “blackmailing happens from one side”, adding that the “girl must have had a relationship with the blackmailer at some point”.

Mauli Azad, however, argues that it is against the guidelines for the committee members to harass the students, or ask questions about their character or clothing, while investigating an incident of sexual harassment.

When asked about the allegation that committee members encourage complainants to resolve the issue “mutually” (i.e. informally), Azad admits, “Yes, I have also heard of such allegations. But such attempts to solve a serious issue informally are essentially a 'contempt of court'. The victim can actually file a case against the committee members, because everyone is bound to obey the HC's guidelines,” she warns.  

Respondents, especially of public universities, note that they are afraid—or find it pointless—to reach out to the committees because of the political affiliation of the perpetrators.

For instance, a student of Chittagong University alleged that some Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) members had attacked her and around 12-14 female students in the university shuttle, as the girls were protesting indecent gestures and verbal abuse of the BCL members.

“We informed our proctor at the time about the incident, but no action was taken, as he himself supported them. Furthermore, the boys threatened us, saying that the consequences will be worse if we took any more action,” she alleges.

Illustration: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

Another student from Jahangirnagar University writes: “Two years ago, a male student with a political background and connections harassed my friend. Although the proctorial body created an investigation committee, my friend did not get proper justice, due to the political engagement of the harasser. The committee also said that my friend gave false information about the harasser. In the end, she was suspended for a year.”

However, when contacted, Prof Rasheda Akhtar, the convener of the sexual harassment complaint committee of that university, claims that she has no knowledge of this incident. “I have been working in this committee for the past four years, dealt with 18 complaints, but never experienced that students are afraid to complain against students from political backgrounds,” she argues. Rather Prof Akhtar claims “that female students bring false cases of sexual harassment” She also describes how female students bring up “minor” cases after “being instigated by others.”

Besides investigating incidents and giving justice to the victims, the committees are supposed to create awareness about gender equality and sexual offences. However, to the question, “Does your university conduct seminars or orientation programmes on how to report an incident of sexual harassment on university campuses?”56 percent informed that the universities do not conduct such programmes that would facilitate awareness of how to report an incident of sexual harassment.

In this respect, DU Pro VC Dr Ahmad blames the ignorance of the students, adding that students should be more aware of what's going on in their universities. “They can inform the proctorial body about their problems. Also, we tell them about the committee through the orientation programmes and the student counsellors are always there to motivate them to talk about every single problem they face on campus. If that doesn't work, they can still come and share their problems with their faculty members,” she says.

Despite there being committees in most major universities, the number of actual complaints filed is woefully low. For instance, over the last six years, at North South University, no written complaints have been filed with the committee. Similarly, no complaints have been filed at the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB).   

Although the number of incidents and cases are alarming, so far no case was filed by any committees of the universities. Only three organisations—UGC, UN Women and Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers' Association (BNWLA)—are jointly working to break the culture of silence and to ensure proper justice for the victims. As the UGC is the authorised organisation to monitor the complaints process, it is assisting the other two organisations to bring sustainable change in this regard.

But the question still remains: why cannot we create safe spaces for women in campuses? Why do students not trust committees, even if and when they are in place?

Mauli Azad argues that a major challenge remains the inefficiencies of the committees. “The committees are not very functional because most teachers are not interested enough to work on this amid their regular work, without any financial benefits or necessary facilities. I think the universities should have created a separate fund for this. Also, this is a risky job; it requires time and money for investigation,” explains Mauli.

On the other hand, Mahtabul Hakim, Programme Analyst at UN Women Bangladesh, believes that acknowledging sexual harassment as an issue is still the key challenge. “Accountability of authorities ascertained by the HC is not often prioritised. Perhaps the lack of a specific law (although there is an HC guideline) is the main reason. Even with mechanisms in place, students are reluctant to report cases of sexual harassment due to the social stigma that persists,” he adds.

Although the culture of silence is all-pervasive, the survey responses are proof that a lack of noise does not mean an absence of turmoil and victimisation. It is a sad commentary on our society that victims of sexual crimes cannot—and do not—speak up.

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