The guidelines on preventing sexual harassment in educational institutions were issued 11 years ago, but there has been a negligible progress in their implementation.
In a 2009 ruling, the High Court said forming Sexual Harassment Prevention Committees (SHPCs) in all educational institutions and workplaces and ensuring their active functioning is mandatory.
However, most of the schools and colleges did not form SHPCs even after repeated orders from the Ministry of Education.
Only four SHPCs are active in public and private universities but their work is slow. The rest of the universities do not take any step to prevent sexual harassment.
According to the court guidelines, it is mandatory to dispose of a case of sexual harassment within 30 days of receiving complaints. However, the SHPC at the University of Rajshahi is yet to dispose of six cases filed six months ago.
Layla Arzuman Banu, member secretary of the SHPC at the university, told The Business Standard, "There are many obstacles when it comes to taking sexual harassment prevention steps. The university does not co-operate with us fully. Thus, we have been struggling in our work."
"Of the six cases, one was filed against a teacher, and the remaining five against students. We hope to dispose of all of them shortly," she said.
According to a study conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh in May 2018, a lack of awareness about guidelines on sexual harassment prevention among students is a major barrier to prevent such acts in educational institutions.
The study said even in institutions where the SHPC exists, the students are mostly unaware of it.
ActionAid surveyed students of 30 public and private universities. 84 percent of them said they are unaware of the SHPC in their respective universities while 87 percent had no knowledge about the 2009 High Court guidelines. Thirteen percent had only heard about the court guidelines without knowing further details.
Recently, the University Grants Commission (UGC) asked universities for reports on sexual harassment but received a poor response. Only 20-25 universities out of 150 submitted their reports.
Mauli Azad, deputy director of the UGC, told The Business Standard that some universities are doing better – such as Jahangirnagar University, Rajshahi University, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, and East West University – than others in dealing with sexual harassment complaints.
"But investigations into sexual harassment allegations against influential teachers tend to fizzle out. This is because the university is often reluctant to take cognisance of such complaints," she said.
Mauli said a total of 39 public and 60 private universities have SHPCs but most of them are inactive.
"Most students of public and private universities are unaware of the existence of SHPCs and their functions. Also, the UGC cannot monitor the SHPC activities properly due to lack of manpower and other logistic support. We need more people to ensure proper monitoring," she explained.
UN Women, a United Nations entity working for the empowerment of women, assists the UGC and the Ministry of Education in this regard. It said even the teachers do not have a clear idea of prevention of sexual harassment.
It also said teachers and students of only four universities – three public and one private – have received training in how to prevent sexual harassment.
Umma Salma Ahmed, programme associate of UN Women, told The Business Standard that students, the faculty and the administration in each of the four institutions have increased capacity to develop an overall strategy for engaging with the educational community to be active in addressing and preventing sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence.
"We are working in three government colleges in Patuakhali, Bogura and Cumilla. We have a plan to work in polytechnic institutes and the export processing zones in those districts," she said.
"Only UN Women trains teachers and students in how to prevent sexual harassment. But the initiative is present in only some selected institutions. The government must take massive steps to arrange the training in all educational institutions as early as possible," she added.
High Court order neglected
Women in public universities have demanded institutional steps against sexual harassment since the early 1990s. The recurrent cases of sexual harassment in educational institutions, however, show that the 2009 High Court order had not been taken seriously.
The Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, and the Directorate of Madrasha Education have no information on how many institutions under their jurisdiction have so far set up SHPC committees.
In response to a writ petition, the High Court on May 13 last year issued a ruling, asking the authorities concerned to enquire progress in formation of SHPCs in educational institutions and workplaces as per the guidelines issued in 2009.
The court asked the authorities concerned to explain in two weeks why they should not be directed to submit a progress report in this regard.
Advocate Fawzia Karim Feroze, president of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association who stood for the writ petition, told The Business Standard that the 18 respondents, including the Ministry of Education, failed to respond to the court order and did not submit the progress report.
"We will file another writ petition next week," she said.
The director general of the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education, Professor Syed Golam Faruque, said he does not know how many educational institutions have formed SHPCs.
"We have sent letters to the educational institutions several times, asking them to form SHPCs. However, we did not do any survey on how many institutions actually obeyed our order," he added.