Gender Cells, Internal Complaint Committees, Student Welfare Depts: Who is accountable for women's safety in college hostels?

With recent incidents on college campuses sparking debate on the measures taken by administrations to protect the students, it also seems to be a good time to reflect on preventive measures
Pic: Edexlive
Pic: Edexlive

It was just last week that instances of violence against women and infringement of their safety and privacy were reported at a few premier higher educational institutions across the country. 

There was IIT Bombay, where a canteen worker at a girls' hostel managed to climb up a wall to peek into the hostel bathroom. There was also the incident at Chandigarh University, where a girl student allegedly recorded videos of her fellow students in the hostel bathroom and circulated them to her friends. In the case of IIT Bombay, the administration issued a statement that it will be installing more CCTV cameras at the hostel in question in order to ensure the safety of the women studying there. IIT Bombay also said that the canteen had been shut and will be reopened only when it is staffed by women.

Just a few days before the incident at Chandigarh University, a student had lashed out against the administration for setting different curfew timings for boys and girls. While girls were confined to hostel rooms by 7.30 pm, without access to the library, boys were allowed to stay out until 9.30 pm.

Take also the case of Maharashtra National Law University (MNLU), Aurangabad, where a student called for equality in imposing the curfew of 10.00 pm on boys and girls. While the former were allowed to roam outside their hostels even after 10.00 pm, girls were locked inside promptly at the curfew hour. An official at the varsity told EdexLive that the deadline is imposed keeping everyone's safety in mind.

In light of these incidents, it is pertinent to wonder if curfews and surveillance are the only way to ensure safety. And if not, then what measures are available for educational institutions to take, to ensure a safer campus?

The Saksham Committee Report
In 2013, the University Grants Commission (UGC) released the Saksham Committee Report that addressed the issue of gender sensitisation on campuses. This report highlighted issues pertaining to gender sensitisation on campuses on the basis of the findings of a Task Force by the UGC formed to investigate measures already in place plus, provide feedback and suggestions. 

Beyond highlighting issues related to the lack of gender sensitivity on campuses, the report warns against policies of "protectionism" and says, "The attitude to
women’s safety in hostels often infantilises these adult women and does not empower them to learn to strategize about their own safety. Most importantly the focus would have to shift to ensuring a safe environment around the hostel and campus. An urgent issue to address is safety for all women on campuses who want to sit in the library till late or in the science departments to do experiments. Proper lighting and shuttle buses that take students to the hostel or the nearest bus stop are necessary."

The report recommended the setting up of a Gender Sensitisation Unit within the UGC as a nodal body to oversee policies to ensure zero tolerance for gender-based violence and discrimination on campus. Importantly, the report emphasises the need for instructive courses and workshops on gender sensitisation in higher educational institutions to build safe, sensitised environments for all students on campus. 

Incidentally, this was the module on which the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) had set up its Gender Sensitisation Council Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH). JNU's GSCASH predates the Saksham Committee Report and was constituted in 1999. It was an autonomous body that consisted of elected representatives from the faculty, the students and the administration. "The GSCASH, because of its structure, encouraged students to report instances of sexual violence or discrimination. It actively engaged students with workshops on gender sensitisation and it was preventative in nature. It educated students on the consequences of violence, which in turn, discouraged such behaviour," informs Prof Moushami Basu of JNU's School of International Studies.

In 2017, the then Vice-Chancellor of JNU, M Jagadesh Kumar, scrapped the GSCASH and replaced it with the Internal Complaint Committee (ICC), which had been recommended by the Saksham Committee Report for institutions that do not have any body in place for redressal of such issues. The move drew fierce backlash from the faculty and students at JNU, who demand that GSCASH be reinstated quite frequently, as they did after the recent incidents on other campuses in the country. 

"The autonomy of the GSCASH was sacrosanct. On the other hand, the ICC is a nominated body. There is an utter lack of accountability. And it is a reactionary body, so there is no system of education and awareness on campus anymore with regard to gender sensitisation. And that's why you see the number of complaints registered with the ICC is lower and there are also instances of catcalls from boys' hostels, torches being pointed at women students and leering on the streets of the campus. People have become emboldened. They think they can get away with it," laments Prof Basu, adding that these scenarios were alien to JNU. 

The institutions in question 
What then of these institutions that were in the centre of it all last week? IIT Bombay has a Gender Cell. However, contrary to regulations, this body has not submitted its annual report in the last three years, according to sources. Critics also call into question the structure of such cells on campus. "The members of the cell need to be elected democratically and it needs to have independent powers. They cannot report back to the administration. They need to submit annual reports on the nature of complaints received and unless that happens, there is no hope for change," says Pranav Jeevan, a student at IIT Bombay. 

Students of the H10, the hostel that was the site of the incident at IIT Bombay, have said that the Gender Cell of the institution has not as yet intervened in the matter. When the students tried to reach the Gender Cell through the Hostel Council, they were unsuccessful. 

Chandigarh University does not have a Gender Cell or anything of the kind. It does have a Department of Student Welfare and it is this department that has been the recipient of the students' complaints, and ire, in the aftermath of the incident last week.

Anusha Bharadwaj, Executive Director of a Hyderabad-based NGO, Voice4Girls points out that we cannot wait for such incidents to happen to realise that we are not having important conversations with the students. "Gender sensitisation is important for both boys and girls. We have to teach them about the laws in place. We need to counter social conditioning and messaging that promotes patriarchy and covert and overt violence against women. We need to have open conversations also about gender and sexuality and sensitise people from different orientations. We often alienate boys when we talk about 'safety' of women. We need to come up with ways to make them the agents of change. Curfews and CCTVs control women more than protecting them. They are superficial. These measures cannot be curative. You cannot just put a bandaid on it," she remarks. 

What are other institutions doing?
Awareness and sensitisation are the key terms here. And a few colleges have taken initiatives to bring students up to speed with them. Take for example Osmania University (OU) in Hyderabad. OU's Vice-Chancellor, Prof D Ravinder Reddy, states that it is the varsity's Centre of Gender Studies that takes care of gender issues.

"The Centre conducts seminars to sensitise boys and male professors regarding gender issues as well. In 2021, we conducted an international seminar. Another vertical we have is the Safety, Health and Environment or SHE centre, which conducts workshops and seminars at the university level on these issues," Prof Reddy shares. 

At Miranda House in Delhi University, the ICC replaced its own democratically-elected College Complaints Committee, post the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressed) Act, 2013. "The members of this committee were nominated and it led to cases of abuse and harassment being dusted under the carpet. There are hierarchies involved, students who are ready to voice their concerns now feel the pressure of hierarchy," states Dr Aabha Dev Habib, Professor from the Department of Physics at Miranda House. 

In 2018, the Staff Council of Miranda House decided to invoke the University Ordinance XV (D), which requires three democratically-elected student representatives to be on the College Complaints Committee. The Gender Sensitisation Committee (GSC) was formed, which included one democratically elected representative from each class. These representatives then elected three members to be on the ICC. 

The GSC conducts awareness meetings, shares the history of cases, deliberates on the nature of these cases and is often the first point of contact in cases of harassment, Dr Habib explains.

"The measures adopted should give women confidence. And, the more women there are on the streets, the safer the streets become," she remarks. 

And that's also a principle that OU seems to be adhering to. "If women are in decision-making positions, they can create a sea change. We have allotted more than 50% of administrative positions to women. The Human Resource Development Committee is also headed by three women faculty now. Empowerment ensures safety for all," points out Dr Reddy.

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