Whistle blower in the dock

Sep 25, 2011, 11:17 IST | Sowmya Rajaram

Guidelines that will make colleges across the state 'harassment-free' zones have young girls and women's rights activists excited. But a policy without support from college authorities, or understanding from students, both men and women, is little more than a tiger without teeth

Guidelines that will make colleges across the state 'harassment-free' zones have young girls and women's rights activists excited. But a policy without support from college authorities, or understanding from students, both men and women, is little more than a tiger without teeth

On a surprisingly cool afternoon in September, Kranti Jejurkar's sparse office, nestled in the green lungs of Mumbai University's tree-happy campus at Santacruz (East), is bright and cheerful. Jejurkar, chairperson of the Women's Development Centre (WDC) at the University, however, isn't. "At this very moment, I'm fighting for a girl who was sexually harassed by her teacher, but isn't being supported by her parents or college," she tells us. "It has been proven via three independent enquiries that the teacher was guilty and the victim wasn't fabricating the story, but social myopia means that the girl is blamed for the incident."

Over the course of an hour-long conversation, interrupted a few times by other commitments, Jejurkar lists more instances of harassment of female students that have come to light during her tenure. Each time, the diminutive lady rues the inaction on the part of authorities. "College authorities are under political pressure to hush up cases like this one. While the law demands that an errant perpetrator be fired, it doesn't happen that easily in reality. And it's sad, because it takes a a lot of courage for a victim to complain in the first place," she says, passionately.

Fortunately, Jejurkar's angst might find some balm in the soon-to-be introduced guidelines that will make colleges across the state a 'harassment-free' zone for women. An initiative of State Higher Education Minister Rajesh Tope, the zero eve teasing policy aims at eliminating sexual harassment from educational spaces in the country, and bring the offenses in line with punishments meted out under the anti-ragging law that's currently in force across colleges.

Jor se bolo
For Nandita Shah and Nandita Gandhi, co-directors of Akshara, a Mumbai NGO that works towards a gender-just society, the proposed set of rules has been a long time waiting. In fact, the duo, who also worked on the introduction of 103, the state emergency helpline for women, children and senior citizens, met with Tope to propose the introduction of the law two months ago, and is happy that their efforts may come to fruition soon.

"During our work in the field, we've discovered that the notion that Mumbai's women don't face sexual harassment is false. They do, and they need a strong policy in place to help them deal with it," says Shah, at their Dadar office.

Over three cups of fragrant tea, Gandhi, sitting at a table strewn with posters and material from their previous campaigns, explains, "Last year, we set up a video unit for slum youths to make a film called Jor Se Bolo, on eve teasing. That was a real eye opener. While the boys said they teased women 'just for fun' or to 'exert power', in the case of girls, harassment cramped their mobility. If they dared speak up, they would be kept under watch by their parents or guardians. So, instead of a solution, they'd end up facing silent violence in the form of restrictions imposed by male members of their family."

Ashwini Salian, a third year Commerce student from Vile Parle's Sathaye College, agrees. "There is a lot that goes on subtly; you don't even notice it. I know of girls who don't audition for or perform at dance competitions at college festivals, because they're worried about the tasteless reaction and remarks from boys around them. That's restricting their freedom to act the way they want."

Implementation is key
Indu Shahani, principal of HR College of Commerce and Economics, Churchgate, believes it's only a strong set of guidelines and a Women's Development Cell that can deter crimes against women. "We have a cell that conducts workshops to sensitise students about women's issues and rights," she says. To this end, last week, the college hosted the launch of www.standupagainstviolence.org, a resource for women facing domestic violence (another Akshara initiative), on its premises, and the WDC got its first male member, Tarang Khurana, who is also its vice president.

Gandhi and Shah believe college campuses can act as a microcosm of the world outside, where the problem and a possible solution that may emerge can both be observed and tackled. "We found that most girls suffered from low self-confidence and were afraid to assert themselves, fearing retaliation or lack of support. That makes a number of changes imperative -- from supporting and encouraging the complainant to taking punitive action when there is a problem." A policy will ensure that colleges take responsibility for what happens to their students, whether on their campus or outside.

For Usha Mukundan, principal, Ramniranjan Jhunjhunwala College, Ghatkopar, the guidelines come with a rider. "There's no point if there's no follow-up action on the guidelines. A sexual harassment law (Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with the assault or use of criminal force on women with the intent to outrage their modesty) is in place, but that hasn't reduced cases of eve teasing or assault."

Mukundan is circumspect about the guidelines leaving scope for misuse. "They need to be watertight, and everyone -- students, teachers, even non-teaching staff -- need to be made aware of the policy as well as their rights. That's when it will make sense," she feels.

Jejurkar agrees, as she displays a poster of the WDC's activities. The fliers are periodically sent out to colleges for display. "Often, I visit colleges and see that the poster is nowhere to be found. Despite all our efforts, we can't do much if college authorities are disinterested. Displaying posters, holding workshops, and creating an atmosphere that can raise a productive debate about the problems women face are important."

While the plan to implement a policy is in itself a step towards change, young girls like five BMM students of Wilson College, are already taking matters in their own hands. Their Chappal Maroongi campaign encourages women to beat down harassers, quite literally, with their chappals, in an effort to raise their voice against violence.

Hopefully, sometime soon, they won't need to.

What Akshara is ultimately hoping to do
> Sensitise boys. When men, who are not perpetrating harassment, fail to raise their voice against such crimes, they are tacitly complying with the way things are.

> Take away the frivolity from the issue. The term eve teasing too, is frivolous. It trivialises an issue that may not affect someone in a tangible way, leading them to suicide, for instance, like ragging does. But it affects women by restricting their mobility, shaking their self confidence, choosing their career, and so on. Tackling harassment of women is also a way of dealing with the declining sex ratio.

> Work towards introducing the 103 helpline across the country.

What's WDC's role?
> Setting up the Women's Development Cell (WDC) is mandatory across colleges as per the guidelines of the University of Mumbai. It is an officially recognised body that aims at the upliftment of women, and spreading awareness about women's issues.

> The cell's activities include conducting workshops for students and faculty on gender sensitisation, as well as taking action against complaints.

> The WDC of Mumbai University is currently creating a resource centre that will source short films made on the subject of sexual harassment that it will make available to colleges.

> Its role covers everything from dealing with sexual harassment of students by teachers or friends to providing clean toilets for girls.

The Handbook
Your guide to what the anti-harassment policy will entail
> The college's creation of a gender-sensitive environment might be the basis for the NAARC accreditation.

> Colleges may get recognition on the basis of how gender-sensitive they are.

> It may be made mandatory for a college to include its commitment to tackle harassment in the prospectus.

> It may be made mandatory for the Women's Development Cell (WDC) to frame a set of rules for preventing and tackling harassment, and publicise that in the prospectus.

> The WDC of every college may be granted a larger budget.

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