Indian sexual harassment panels face ‘many limitations’

Women chairing university complaint bodies are at risk of retribution and cases are not always ‘taken seriously’ by committee members, academics say

七月 4, 2022
Protesters gathered during a protest against caste based sexual violence happening in different parts of the country to illustrate Indian sexual harassment panels face ‘many limitations’
Source: Getty

Members of committees tasked with handling sexual harassment cases at Indian universities face many restrictions on their ability to protect individuals seeking their help, scholars have warned.

In a recent statement, India’s national regulator, the University Grants Commission, reminded institutions that they must have an internal complaints commission (ICC) – but academics who spoke to Times Higher Education stressed that the mere existence of such bodies did not ensure that universities handled cases of misconduct seriously.

While most – if not all – universities have such committees, “there are many limitations that ICCs face in processing cases satisfactorily, even where they are functioning”, said Ravinder Kaur, a sociology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

She said this was particularly the case when there was a power differential between the accuser and the accused.

Anamika Sinha, an associate professor at the Goa Institute of Management who has studied sexual harassment in institutions, noted that even professors chairing such committees – who are often women – are themselves vulnerable to harassment.

“The head of the committee, a woman, is already under pressure to comply with the patriarchy to survive and save [her] job. So if she defends the victim, she will be the victim herself soon,” said Dr Sinha.

“Most thus play by the [rules of the] coterie even though they know what is right. The training, procedures are all just a checklist.”

Dr Sinha was also sceptical that institutions took the committees seriously.

“More often than not, people are put on committees to balance administrative roles,” she said, adding: “Committees are made, but they seldom meet, and there is a nonsensical approach to handling things.”

Vineeta Bal, an emeritus professor of biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, agreed.

“Having a committee and having a functional committee are really different things,” she said.

“There is a lot that needs to be done, and it begins with the composition of the ICC,” said Professor Bal, noting that sometimes, the individuals appointed as committee members have a “very superficial” understanding of gender issues because they come from purely legal backgrounds.

“As result, they do not have enough perspective and do not take things seriously,” she said, comparing the scene to family courts in which complaining couples are told “you’d better get along with each other”.

Even in the academic context, complainants are told “there is no evidence, this is not significant – all these kinds of platitudes”, she said.

While India has yet to come a long way in how it handles complaints of sexual harassment or violence in its institutions, with sexual misconduct still a “major, major problem”, she did say that at least in terms of awareness of the issue, there have been signs of progress.

A top-down emphasis on committees to address the issue was a step in the right direction, said Professor Bal. “The fact that the process has begun is in itself an achievement,” she said.



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