Anti-Sexual Harassment Cells: ‘No one to listen until we make ourselves heard’
Mehnaz (not her real name), a student of Chittagong University, was sexually harassed by a group of men on her campus a few months ago.
She filed a complaint to the proctorial body in this regard, following which the perpetrators started threatening her and her family members.
"I was being pressured to withdraw the complaint as the perpetrators were backed by a leader of the ruling party's student body. They told me that nothing would come out of the complaint and only my character would be assassinated.
"I still went ahead with it and eventually, two of them were suspended."
However, when the time to file the complaint had come, she said no one mentioned that she could go to the anti-sexual harassment cell and ask for protection.
"At that time, I didn't even know it exists."
That is the reality of the anti-sexual harassment cells at the universities, despite a 2009 High Court directive that requires active cells in all educational institutions and workplaces.
A vast majority of students do not have the good fortune of seeing their perpetrators getting punished as Mehnaz did.
This newspaper talked to 115 students from 15 public and private universities across the country, where almost all of them mentioned they have been victims of some form of sexual harassment or know someone who is a victim.
Most of them have said they are not comfortable with filing complaints because they fear their identities will be revealed and they will have to face repercussions, which stands against a fundamental function of the cell -- protecting the victims.
According to the information gathered from the students, around 46.1 percent of the harassers were classmates of the victims, whereas 27.8 percent were seniors/juniors, 11.3 percent were outsiders and 10.4 percent were faculty members.
Of those interviewed, 63.5 percent mentioned incidents of physical harassment, while 75.7 percent mentioned instances of verbal abuse and 29.6 percent reported cyber harassment.
Meanwhile, 61.7 percent of them said no complaint was filed regarding the incidents. Of the rest, only 3.2 percent could file a complaint to their university's anti-sexual harassment cell.
The HC entrusted the University Grants Commission (UGC) with overseeing the formation of committees at the universities.
Contacted, Mauli Azad, deputy director of UGC, said 45 out of 53 public and 71 of 109 private universities have established anti-sexual harassment cells.
"Universities are supposed to submit reports of their activities every six months. However, very few send these reports. And those who do keep the reports mostly vague, without proper numbers or details of the incidents. Most of these complaints were lodged five to seven years ago.
"Some universities reached out to us saying they don't have enough funds to run the cells and the investigations. We then sent letters to all universities saying we will provide funds to the complaint committee but they are yet to respond."
The reasons for not filing a complaint varied.
However, 68.5 percentof the students The Daily Star talked to mentioned they did not file a complaint for fear of judgement and character assassination.
Around 27.4 percent of them did not file complaints because the perpetrator was influential, while 17.8 percent did not complain as the offenders were involved with the ruling party.
Meanwhile, a staggering 31.5 percent of the students interviewed said they did not even know where to file the complaints. Asked if they know of any such cell where sexual harassment complaints are registered, 77.4 percent responded in the negative.
Asked if the universities arrange seminars, workshops or any other awareness campaigns on where and how to register such complaints as per the HC directive, 59.1 percent of the responders said they have not noticed any such activities.
At the beginning of this year, this newspaper published a report on Jahangirnagar University's sexual harassment prevention cell, which was the first of its kind at any public university in Bangladesh.
Our JU correspondent talked to over 50 students from January 21 to 23. At least 20 of them said they don't even know of any such cell on campus. The rest said they heard about it, but did not notice any activities.
There is also a lack of faith in the authorities – due to their inaction in most cases – that discourages students from filing complaints.
Most of those (interviewed by this newspaper) who filed complaints mentioned that in most cases, no action was taken against the perpetrators.
Around 66.1 percent of the responders said they have no faith in the competence of any such cell or other authoritative bodies when it comes to sexual harassment.
"I saw a classmate of mine being harassed for days by another classmate. When a complaint was filed to the department faculties with all the evidence, they chose to do nothing about it on the grounds that a suspension could ruin the life of the perpetrator," said Samantha (not her real name), a student of Dhaka University.
"So, when I was harassed by another classmate, I chose not to file a complaint. I did not know about the anti-sexual harassment cell, but I also think they would not be of much help either after seeing teachers from my own department not cooperating with a victim."
Arunima Tahsin, a senior year student of DU and an ex-Ducsu member of the Shamsunnahar Hall caucas, said, "Until now, I did not know that such a cell exists at the university.
"I was told that a few students of Shamsunnahar Hall complained to the authorities about being harassed in front of the food carts that stand on the opposite side of the hall entrance. In response, the authorities said they cannot take responsibility for events occurring outside the areas that fall under CCTV surveillance. This is how complaints are treated …."
Contacted, Prof Zeenat Huda of DU's sociology department and head of the anti-sexual harassment cell, said, "I'm a newcomer to the committee so I cannot comment on the previous activities. But as per my knowledge, the cell is active."
Prof Nazia Chowdhury, head of the physics department at Shahjalal University of Science and Technology and former head of Sust anti-sexual harassment cell, said "We provide information regarding the cell during orientations and have put up billboards at the cafeteria.
"Our year-long activities also include protest programmes against cases of violence from across the country. We have a four-member complaint committee and we do proper investigation for every case. Students have always relied on us and our judgement."
She added, "Universities should let the students know of the cell's activities at orientations, department handbooks and on the university website. We also need a dedicated committee to deal with such issues [raising awareness]."
Ashrafi Nitu, a recent graduate from Chittagong University, said a cell was formed in CU back in 2010 and has remained inactive until recently.
"After a harassment incident that took place on our campus on July 17 this year, we demanded the formation of a new cell and decisions on all 6 pending cases."
She also mentioned that most of the perpetrators in these cases are backed by the ruling party's student body, which makes the work harder. While decisions were made regarding the pending cases, it took more time to implement them.
"For example, the cell recommended suspension of the offender but the suspension order took a long time to reach the departments.
"Meanwhile, some of the perpetrators also got to sit for the exams. The order was only implemented after we went to the proctorial body and protested the delay," said Nitu.
"It seems like we need to keep protesting for the cells to be visible and active. There is no one to listen to us if we don't make ourselves heard."