Caste And Sexual Harassment in Higher Educational Institutions
By Aparimita Pratap, an alumnus of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences and identifies as a Dalit feminist.
Three Dalit women were on the receiving end of continuous sexual harassment by a group of non-Dalit men just because these women decided to break the caste barriers and protest against the caste discrimination they had been facing at their Higher Educational Institution ("HEI"). Even after repeated complaints, the HEI refused to take any action against the perpetrators - neither was an Internals Committee (“IC”) set up nor was an investigation launched by any other University authority. This is the lived reality of the sexual harassment faced by Dalit women in HEIs and the institutional impunity given to non-Dalit perpetrators. Underreported due to the structural bias against Dalit women and access to justice crippled by the institutional pressure put on Dalit survivors, this is a dialogue that has been lacking from the non-intersectional spaces we have created within our HEIs.
A recent study with a small-sized survey called “Dalit Girls and Sexual Harassment in the University” sheds light on the prevalence of caste motivated sexual harassment in HEIs and the institutional apathy towards Dalit survivors. It highlights the need to understand sexual harassment as a form of caste violence in HEIs. The study also maintained that sexual harassment is used, by both peers and teachers, as a tool to dominate Dalit students. Public humiliation, scolding, intentionally violating one’s privacy over their body, rape threats and similar actions are used to coerce Dalit women who often raise their voices against the discrimination being faced by them, to demonstrate that they are vulnerable and that their bodies can be violated without any repercussions on the perpetrators. This constant harassment, often with sexual undertones, also causes Dalit women to drop out of their higher education.
For Dalit students, the decision to report caste discrimination and the atrocities faced by them often leads to the creation of a second site of violence by faculty. The outcome is always heavily reliant on the attitude and sensitivity of the HEIs towards the issue of caste harassment,. There are some redressal mechanisms in place to report such incidents and a strict duty is put on the HEIs to prevent caste discrimination faced by Dalit students. The UGC Grievance Redressal Regulations, 2019 (“UGC Redressal Regulations”) read with UGC Promotion of Equity in HEIs Regulations, 2012 (“UGC Equity Regulations”) lay down the framework to protect students of minority communities, including students belonging to the SC/ST communities. The Redressal Regulations provide for the establishment of equal opportunity cells in HEIs for students from minority and vulnerable communities to report incidents of discrimination being faced by them. Subsequently, the Grievance Redressal Committee of the HEI is duty bound to take cognizance of the complaint, resolve the issue fairly and prescribe punishment for the trauma inflicted upon Dalit students. UGC, in particular, has also provided for the establishment of SC/ST Cells in HEIs with the view to ensure the safety and protection of students belonging to the SC/ST communities.
When caste-based atrocities have a sexual undertone to them, the survivors can resort to filing complaints with the IC at their HEI. It was emphasised throughout the Saksham report that gender relations cannot be constituted in isolation, but are shaped by other factors that increase vulnerability and marginalisation like caste, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. Taking the suggestions put forth by the Saksham report, the UGC Regulations on Sexual Harassment, 2016 (“UGC Regulations”) recognized vulnerable groups on the basis of region, class, caste, sexual orientation, minority identity and disability and stated that these groups are more at risk of being harassed and face social and structural barriers while seeking institutional help. The responsibility was cast on the HEIs to ensure that the vulnerability of these groups is taken into account while lending institutional support and redressal to the survivors belonging to these vulnerable groups. Further, as per the modules laid down in the Saksham Report, gender sensitization programmes should include sensitization on issues like caste, sexuality, minority identity, etc. In persistence of the same, the UGC Regulations pose a duty on the HEIs to sensitize its students, faculty, staff and IC about these factors and issues as well.
On the recommendation provided in the Saksham report, some colleges have established support cells comprising of faculty and students who provide support to the survivors in coping with their trauma and overcoming social, economic or institutional barriers that they may be facing while pursuing their case before the institutional bodies like the IC. Since these barriers are usually different for each vulnerable group, the support cells should also be adequately trained and sensitized to understand and accommodate the special needs of the students from vulnerable groups so as to overcome the barriers.
It is the responsibility of the HEI to ensure proper mechanisms are in place to deal with caste-based discrimination and sexual harassment and to ensure that all members of the HEI are informed and sensitized regarding what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Further, if you are a survivor belonging to any vulnerable group mentioned above, it is your right to demand sensitivity from your HEI and the IC that has taken cognizance of your complaint.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you require more information and support against sexual harassment, including sexual violence faced by vulnerable groups at your HEI.
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