Laws are not enough

  • A complaint panel should be formed to deal with sexual harassment in organisations

Dec 11, 2018-

A few days ago, two former post-graduate students of Tribhuvan University central campus shared their experiences of sexual harassment by their professor in a public channel. According to them, the perpetrator is a ‘renowned, veteran intellectual who advocates for social justice and gender equality.’ At the time, he was also holding a dominant position, in terms of institutional influence and social authority. The two women detail his inexcusable actions in their piece; they had to endure inappropriate physical touching, sexist jokes and remarks, and even display of pornography. 

Their disclosure sent social media abuzz. Most of the comments questioned their credibility and challenged the students to name their tormentor. Some called it a publicity stunt. In a patriarchal society, the comments accusing the women of being attention seekers or trying to take revenge against the university can be understood. But the remarks from acclaimed progressive figures including writers and lecturers were unexpected and shocking. Asking for the name of the perpetrator and proof displays the witlessness of these ‘progressive’ writers and scholars. How can the students expect to remain safe and secure after exposing the perpetrator when the whole structure does not favour them? Moreover, the perpetrator is in a dominant position. How can one name him?

If the women name their perpetrator, can those posting such comments give assurances that they will be free of prejudice and take their side? We cannot expect them to do so because they are unwilling to believe that their professors would be involved in sexual harassment. Social science teachers claim that they study the subject not just to understand society, but to question it and provide knowledge and solutions to current societal rifts. Ironically, they are indirectly blaming the victims. As a student, I was expecting faculty members to extend solidarity to the women. I was expecting them to demand an enquiry to provide justice, but I was wrong.   

This changes required to curb violence against women in Nepal cannot occur overnight, but sexual harassment can be minimised, controlled and prevented through different mechanisms. The Indian model of gender sensitisation complaint committee can be a suitable mechanism for preventing sexual harassment in educational institutes like colleges and universities. The complaint committee is an independent entity formed in organisations, colleges and universities. At least 50 percent of the members are women, and the committee is led by a woman member of the organisation. A representative from an organisation engaged in gender issues is also included in the committee.

The complaint committee deals with reports about sexual harassment as per the ‘Vishakha Guidelines.’ The guidelines include five types of sexual harassment against women—inappropriate and unwelcome physical contact and advances, demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, display of pornography and verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature within the organisational premises. 

The complaint committee aims to provide a procedure for resolution, settlement and prosecution of sexual harassment. Institutional rules and bylaws should be made by the organisation to address the issue. Another crucial task of the committee is submitting its work report to the responsible governmental body. The committee’s objective is not only to look after the harassment issue but also share preventive measures and spread awareness among the members, staff and other stakeholders of the organisation. The Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Gender Sensitisation Committee of South Asian University are examples of complaint committees in Indian universities that are working effectively and efficiently.

Nepal has laws to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, but their adequacy is questionable. The laws and bylaws clearly define sexual harassment, but the prescribed method to solve or prosecute cases of harassment is weak. The Sexual Harassment in Workplace Act 2015 has bureaucratic procedures, and there are practical difficulties in making a complaint against the perpetrator. The act does not explicitly state any provision regarding complaint committees in the workplace. 

We can say that the harassment act of Nepal is not friendly. to sexual assault survivors. Under this act, we cannot expect the student victims to register a complaint against the perpetrator who is a ‘veteran and powerful’ professor. In order to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace including colleges and universities, a mechanism like India’s complaint committee should be formed. Unfortunately, organisations rarely conduct awareness programmes against sexual harassment, provide psychological counselling or even install a complaint box. This can reduce sexual harassment to some extent.

Regarding the sexual harassment case at Central Campus, the university can still conduct an independent enquiry to investigate and probe further. There are no legal obstructions preventing the university from doing so. Faculty members who are against sexual harassment should encourage conducting such investigations. They should transcend organisational and occupational egos. Simply because a faculty member is the accused, does not mean all faculty members should be viewed from the same lens. Such a parochial mindset will do more harm than good. The revelation is not about tarnishing the image of faculty members. Rather, it is about seeking justice for the victims of sexual violence. 


Pant is pursuing a MA in Sociology at the South Asian University, New Delhi.

Published: 11-12-2018 08:45

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