Bill protecting students from sexual harassment backed

Amid many incidents of harassment of female students at educational institutions, especially universities, a Senate committee in Pakistan has passed an act this month that, once it becomes law, promises swifter action and stricter punishment of perpetrators of harassment through speedy trials of cases.

The 12-member Standing Committee on Education of Pakistan’s Senate or upper house of parliament on 13 January passed the “Protection against Harassment of Students in Educational Institutions Bill 2020”, originally moved by Senator Javed Abbasi (Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz) in the Senate in August last year, to provide a safer environment in institutions and enable criminal proceedings to be launched against teachers and others charged with harassment.

After a debate in the upper house, the standing committee passed the bill with support from all political parties represented on the parliamentary committee. It becomes law once passed by the lower house.

The draft bill states: “Acts of harassment of students at educational institutions are rising manifold. There is no law available at the moment to curb the issue of bullying, harassment, violence and abuse of authority against the students in educational institutions.”

“There have been repeated incidents of sexual harassment of female students at different universities in the country, and reported cases were being dealt with by disciplinary committees of the universities which had many issues such as prolonged delays in hearings and decisions,” Mehmood Hussain, assistant professor at Pakistan’s Women University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, told University World News.

Mehmood Hussain is co-author of the June 2018 study, “Females higher education in Pakistan: An analysis of socio-economic and cultural challenges”, published by the Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal.

A survey conducted by the paper’s authors found that “in Pakistan, 62.2% of female individuals experienced sexual harassment during their higher education period. They stated that sexual harassment restrained them from going for further higher education, and most females decided to abandon higher education,” according to the paper.

Harassment will be treated as a criminal offence

Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, told University World News: “With the passing of this bill, which is on its way to becoming law, harassment of students shall be treated as a criminal offence, which was previously treated only as a discipline violation.”

He said cases would be dealt with by the courts after they have been scrutinised by a special committee either under the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the regulatory body for universities, or through the office of the executive head of a district, designated as deputy commissioner, for cases from colleges and schools.

Sayed said harassment laws such as the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 have not proven very helpful in curbing harassment on campuses due to the independence and internal autonomy of educational institutions.

The new bill requires the victim or complainant to report a harassment incident directly to the HEC chair or deputy commissioner and binds both of these offices to dispose of the case within 30 days from receipt of the complaint. The bill grants proceedings of the inquiry committees the status of judicial proceedings.

“The scrutiny committees made under this new law shall comprise 50% female and 50% male members, having no direct link or interest with the educational institution from where the report of the harassment is received,” Sayed noted.

The bill empowers the committees to impose fines or order the dismissal of the perpetrator from service. If sexual abuse or violence is proven, the committee shall forward the case to the police or relevant court to initiate criminal proceedings against the accused under the existing penal code.

Protests over campus harassment

Students have been voicing concern at the sexual harassment of female colleagues at campuses across all provinces. In November 2020 female students at Islamia College, University of Peshawar, staged a campus demonstration against harassment of female students by male teachers.

The same month, some 300 students at Karakoram International University of Gilgit held a protest against the alleged sexual harassment of a female student by a university employee.

In March last year, four employees of Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, were dismissed from service after the university management found them guilty of sexual harassment of female students.

In 2019, four members of the administration at Quetta’s University of Balochistan were suspended after large-scale student protests, for using security camera footage to blackmail and harass female students.

HEC Chairman Tariq Banuri said: “In July 2020 we revised and updated the ‘HEC Policy Guidelines Against Sexual Harassment in Institutions of Higher Learning’, which were circulated to universities in 2011 after Pakistan adopted the ‘Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010’, but the introduction of a new law that is more focused and clearer is a positive development to curtail harassment at institutions of learning.”

Mubashir Tariq, assistant professor of law at the University of Sargodha, criticised the new bill. “The new protection against harassment bill, like previous legislation on this matter, does not provide any guidance on the accountability of fake whistleblowers, or the course of action against fake complainants such as the tragic incident at MAO College in Lahore.”

In October 2019, Afzal Mehmood, a professor of English language at the Government Muhammadan Anglo Oriental (MAO) College, Lahore, committed suicide after facing a harassment charge by a female student which later proved false.

Before committing suicide, he wrote a letter to the head of the inquiry committee, stating that the false harassment case had tarnished his image, as his wife had separated from him.

On the other hand, Saira Gul, a female student at Hyderabad’s Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, attempted suicide in October 2019 and was immediately transferred to hospital where she told the media that continued harassment by two male teachers and lack of action by the disciplinary committee led her to attempt suicide.

While academics hold a unanimous view that harassment obstructs females from accessing or continuing higher education, framing rules and making new laws is of little help unless the culture and approach of society is changed through awareness.