Universities body orders campus safety review after rape upoar

Widespread public outrage at the brutal gang r ape in New Delhi in December that resulted in the death of the 23-year-old medical student victim has forced India’s higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission, or UGC, to review the safety of women in higher education institutions.

In a 1 January letter to 568 university vice-chancellors and directors of higher learning institutions, the UGC said institutions should ensure women’s security on campus.

The UGC recommended that all universities and institutions set up a task force to ensure women’s security and keep the commission informed of actions taken.

The rape victim and a male friend had been out to see a film when they boarded a bus in the Munirka area of Delhi. Police said the victim was raped for nearly an hour, and both she and her companion were beaten with iron bars and thrown out of the moving bus into the street. She succumbed to her injuries on December 29 after she had been flown to Singapore for treatment.

Thousands of citizens, most of them students and young people, women and men alike, have taken to the streets in recent weeks demanding serious action to ensure the safety of women in Indian cities and towns.

The campus security review “may be further strengthened both in and around the girls’ hostels on the campuses”, according to the UGC letter signed by UGC Chairperson Ved Prakash.

“These measures are necessary to ensure that girls and women have a safe and inspiring learning environment.”

“Similarly, there is a need to ensure a safe working environment for women employees in the offices for their academic and professional responsibilities. You may consider putting in place a dedicated task force comprising senior colleagues, which can constantly monitor the existing arrangements and the additional ones put into operation."

Stressing the need for modules on awareness of gender issues to be included in the university curriculum, Prakash said discussions on such concerns among faculty and students could help create “healthy mindsets”.

Sexual harassment on campus

The UGC’s recommendation puts the spotlight firmly on the issue of sexual harassment and assault faced daily by students across the country and the failure of higher education institutions to set up preventive mechanisms and-or mechanisms for redress.

According to a commentary published on 3 January in the Times of India, the UGC’s move “is a telling commentary that today’s campuses are not completely safe” from sexual predators.

A safety audit carried out in 2010 at Delhi University's North Campus revealed that one in 10 girl students had been sexually harassed. More than half of the university’s students (51%) said they had been the target of sexual harassment or assault between two and five times in a year.

Some 75% of these incidents took place in broad daylight. Afraid of the consequences, only 4% of students reported the incidents to the police.

The safety audit was carried out by the women’s organisation Jagori, which has been campaigning against violence against women and for gender-sensitive city planning in Delhi. Jagori means ‘awaken women’. The organisation worked in association with Pehel, one of the country’s largest civil society organisations focusing on youth and social issues, and the United Nations Trust Fund's Gender Inclusive Cities Project.

“Female students in our colleges and universities are especially vulnerable. They are young; many have come out of parental supervision for the first time; and they enter academic institutions that are often male dominated,” said a Jagori training manager, Madhubala.

According to Madhubala, universities across India “urgently” need gender sensitisation. The UGC should ensure this on a “war footing”, she said.

“The Delhi University audit threw up facts that university administration never thinks of, such as poor lighting on university roads, and the need for better facilities in campus accommodation, clear street directions and constant police patrolling,” she said.

Delhi lawyer and equality consultant Naina Kapur said that “all universities and educational institutions are mandated by law to have committees to deal with sexual harassment – but few have implemented these”.

Institutional failure

Major universities and institutions across India have set up anti-sexual harassment committees. However, in many others the committees are present only in paper, and often not constituted according to law.

In several instances the committee does not have a woman as its chairperson or 50% of its members as women, or does not include a neutral third party who has expertise in the area. All these are mandated by the law and students and female staff in universities should be aware of these rights, Kapur said.

Referring to the major demonstrations in the wake of the rape, she said: “We need to channel the energy we see now by providing the youth with the tools. We have laws but they are not aware of them.”

In several cases reported by local media, where the accused is a teacher, dean or even head of an institution, the committees tend to side with the accused.

Notably, according to a senior official of Delhi University’s Apex Complaint Committee for registering sexual harassment cases, a majority of the complaints by women students are registered against the teaching faculty and hardly any cases against the non-teaching employees.

Students are sceptical that the latest UGC recommendation to set up yet another taskforce would lead to changes. What is needed is a change in mindsets, they say.

“I had complained against a faculty member because of his inappropriate behaviour. He used to pat me on my back and stand really close to me. But I was told that I was overreacting and it was just fatherly affection,” said a final-year student of Ramjas College, Delhi, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If the same kind of people lead the taskforce what change can we expect?”

“If the UGC is serious, it should come up with more concrete solutions, like tying the funding of an institution to implementation of sexual harassment policies, or de-recognising institutions if such incidents are reported,” she said.