Last week, a female student from the 2016-17 session of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE) department at the Islamic University of Technology (IUT) alleged she was molested by her male classmate in March 2018, according to a recent report published in an English daily.
In recent months, several female students have raised such complaints of sexual harassment by male foreign students at the IUT. They also allege that the IUT authorities have been ignoring their complaints, allowing the male foreign students to act with impunity.
Established in 1986, the IUT is an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)-funded university in Gazipur. The university began enrolling female students in 2017. In the past, the university was only for men.
What is important to take note of here is that these harassment stories are nothing new. They often take place but very few come to light. In fact, it is not about IUT only. Rather harassment, verbal or physical, takes place in all universities more or less and remains untold.
A recently published research paper titled "Sexual Harassment of University Students in Bangladesh: A Case on Dhaka University" authored by Minhazur Rahman Rezvi, Purbasha Prithvi, and Md. Mohsin Hossain of Dhaka University found that most of the respondents were sexually harassed verbally (60%) and non-verbally (51.4%) by male students or faculty members of the university. Around 89% of respondents did not report it to any legal authority. According to the study, the reasons for remaining silent were fear of academic troubles, embarrassment, distrust toward legal systems, and most importantly, fear of social stigmatisation.
Victim blaming is a major reason for remaining silent. A victim is questioned about her attire, character, what she was doing outside at the time of the assault, reasons for not having any witness or evidence of harassment, etc. It traumatises her more. Consequently, most prefer not to complain at all.
Now, the question is, even after all these stories have been unearthed on various campuses, why is there no active anti-harassment committee in all the universities yet?
In 2009, the Supreme Court issued groundbreaking directives to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace and in public places. A study by ActionAid Bangladesh, found that 87% of university students do not know about the directions, and 64.5% of professionals are not aware of them.
According to the directives, every educational institution must have a sexual harassment committee to look into incidents of sexual misconduct. However, about 40% of the country's universities - both public and private – are yet to form one.
According to the data compiled by the UGC, among the 103 private and 45 public universities of the country, only 52 and 35 universities respectively have established sexual harassment prevention committees. Though the effectiveness of those existing committees is questionable.
Most of the students in both public and private universities are unaware of the existence of the sexual harassment prevention committees, and their functions. Even the concept of sexual harassment is not clear to many either.
Each and every institution must have an anti harassment committee that would deal with issues of mental and physical harassment, rag culture, and sexual abuse. Victim blaming works like a shield that defends the predators. It discourages victims from complaining and encourages abusers to do it again. It is high time these wrongful practises are stopped so that students are provided with a healthy environment to study in.
An unbiased panel with adequate representation from people of all gender, nationality, race and colour, consisting of students and teachers, must be created. Female teachers must be included in this panel.
A platform to report incidents of harassment with anonymity must be established by the authorities. There needs to be regular workshops to educate students and staff on what exactly harassment is and its different forms. There needs to be written rules outlining strict punishment imposed for any sexual harassment, discrimination of any race, colour and gender. Hidden CCTV cameras should be added all over the campus so that it does not fall on the victims to keep evidence of harassment incidents.
The tendency among university students to commit suicide has risen alarmingly. Experiences of such mental harassment is a major cause of clinical depression that leads to the decision of taking one's own life. How many more stories will remain untold? How many more souls will cry in silence? How many more predators will walk freely smiling? It is high time all institutions in the country formed active anti-harassment committees.
The author is a freelance journalist and a student of Economics at Shahjalal University of Science & Technology (SUST). He can be reached at [email protected].
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.