Universities fail to implement anti-harassment rules

Pakistan’s higher education regulator has disclosed that 80% of universities have not implemented anti-sexual harassment regulations framed back in 2011 to curb the rising menace of male lecturers coercing female students into ‘sex for grades’.

“It is astonishing to know that only a few universities have answered our queries regarding what they have done to implement the Policy Guidelines against Sexual Harassment at Institutions of Higher Learning, which we framed in 2011,” Ayesha Ikram, media director at the Higher Education Commission, or HEC, told University World News.

“Despite several reminders to universities for quick implementation of the rules, only 30 out of 145 universities have informed us of setting up the suggested systems and bodies to curb incidents of sexual harassment at universities,” she said.

The guidelines require higher education institutions to establish systems to register, probe and deal with complaints, as well as a ‘harassment complaint cell’ and a ‘harassment monitoring officer’ on every campus.

“We certainly cannot punish universities for failing to adopt much-needed systems to protect students from shameful acts of sex-based harassment. But as a regulator, the HEC can stop the release of funds to such universities until they fulfil requirements communicated to them in April this year,” Ikram said.

Pakistan’s Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010 prompted the higher education regulator to frame the code.

The problem

Almost all reported cases of harassment at universities involve female students.

In most cases, male teachers have allegedly asked female students to visit their offices after hours to discuss grades and assignments, or supervisors have asked female students to meet them off campus with the promise of improving their grades.

It is believed that most female students do not report sexual advances or harassment incidents because of societal pressures: a woman known to have been a victim of sexual advances, even failed advances, can face difficulties throughout her life.

Despite this, nearly 70 cases of harassment at universities have been reported in the past decade, and in most of the cases there was no disciplinary action taken against the alleged culprits. Many cases dragged on to such an extent that female students or teachers had to leave campus to save their reputations in society.

Many of the reported cases became public through the national media in 2011.

For instance, two cases at Lahore’s Punjab University were reported, involving the head of the Institute of Communications Studies for alleged sexual advances, as well as a professor who had ‘successfully’ married a 20-year-old female student.

The University of Peshawar did not act on a sexual harassment case until a female legislator raised the matter in the provincial assembly. After that, a professor of history was suspended and four others investigated for sexual harassment of female students in the history department.

At Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, the examinations controller and a professor of information technology were removed from their posts after charges of sexual assault and harassment attempts against female students were proved.

Last July the university fired Abdul Samad Mumtaz, a professor of plant sciences, on the same charges, according to Syndicate Report. Mumtaz rejected the report, calling it “biased”. A case against Inamullah Laghari, a professor of anthropology, is being probed.

Last year, a harassment case involving an economics professor at Islamabad’s International Islamic University created a buzz in the media. He was subsequently fired.

Professor Najma Najam, chair of the HEC task force that devised the anti-harassment guidelines, told University World News: “There is another face of sexual harassment, in which female students coerce male teachers to give them good grades or threaten to report that male teachers tried to molest them.

“We have suggested strong punishment for untruthful, wilfully badly intentioned complaints,” she said.

The HEC plans to run an awareness campaign at all public and private universities – a step that was recommended in the 2011 anti-harassment guidelines but has not yet been implemented because of the lack of response from the top management of most universities.