Universities take measures to curb sexual harassment

The central headquarters of Universidad de Chile or UCH, the country’s largest university, was taken over by students last Tuesday as part of a spate of demonstrations in the main universities against sexual harassment.

At the Universidad de Santiago de Chile or USACH, they guillotined effigies of two academics tried for sexual harassment and of the history department – where these teachers taught – for being accomplices. Later on, they all gathered for a mass demonstration in one of Santiago’s main squares, carrying burning torches, and clashed with police.

“We also handed a letter to the Ministry of Education, demanding that the future sub-secretariat of education that features in the government’s higher education reform includes a gender department,” Amanda Mitrovich, a USACH student who heads the Universities’ Gender Coordination Network, made up of students’ gender secretariats from all universities, told University World News.

Over the past two years most universities have received denunciations of teachers harassing students or of students harassing other students. There are sexual abuse cases in six Chilean universities.

A 2016 UCH study reported that 26% of those consulted had known of sexual harassments and aggressions in university ‘spaces’, including in classrooms and social gatherings, and 14.7% declared having suffered such offences personally.

Two of the most notorious accusations of sexual abuse in Chile concern two UCH academics from the history faculty, accused of sexual harassment by female students, and the group of medical students from the same university who had a WhatsApp group where they published intimate pictures of fellow students and rated their physical attributes, such as the ‘best bum of her generation’.

Sexual harassment protocols

In January this year, UCH became the first university to approve a protocol against sexual harassment. USACH and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile quickly followed suit.

All three have special telephone and mail lines, attended by specialists in sexual harassment. At UCH, academics and staff have been trained on the matter, especially those who volunteered to serve as investigators.

Chile’s universities were forced to have protocols because sexual harassment in the country is only categorised in the Labour Code and the Ministry of Education has not issued a directive on the problem.

Students or authorities of several other universities are working on their own protocols.

“It would be a good idea to standardise them … to ensure that academics tried or sacked from one higher education institution are not employed by another one,” advised Hillary Hiner, a feminist historian, in a national newspaper.

Existing sexual harassment protocols apply to students, academics and staff for acts within or outside university premises. Only the Pontificia Universidad Católica rules out misdemeanours committed elsewhere.

All three universities with existing protocols are set to receive accusations from university third parties, guarantee confidentiality and offer victims psychological and legal support. Only at UCH can somebody not related to the university denounce such behaviour and an investigation may be started without the consent of the victim.


“The latter measure is meant to guarantee due process,” says Carmen Andrade, head of UCH’s office of equal opportunities related to gender and former head of the government’s women’s secretariat. “If nobody denounces, there is no enquiry or sanction, a perfect scenario for the proliferation of these types of behaviour.”

Prompting students to denounce sexual harassment is one of the main planks of university students’ campaigns. “I denounce”, read a huge banner displayed at their demo on 24 October.

USACH’s protocol has the most detailed definition of what constitutes sexual harassment, which includes explicit or implicit promises of special treatment for sexual favours, physical or psychological threats and the use of words with a sexual connotation, including on social media.

Andrade explains that there is sexual harassment when the affected person objects to approaches with a sexual connotation. Consensual sexual relations do not constitute harassment.

“In hierarchical relations between professors and students, consent cannot be inferred from the silence or lack of resistance of the victims. We know of students who have been harassed and give the course taught by the aggressor [a skip], miss a whole semester and some even give up their studies altogether,” adds Andrade.

At USACH, students do not approve of confidential enquiries – or necessarily accept their outcome. “We think they must be made public, because if those teachers are found innocent, we must know their past behaviour,” says Mitrovich.

USACH students have been on strike demanding that two of their teachers found innocent earlier this year are disallowed from teaching first degrees and are not given private offices.

“There have been teachers who call a student in, lock their office and then proceed to harass her sexually,” says Mitrovich.