Vulnerable Groups in Higher Education Institutions vis a vis the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Higher Education Institutions

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Vulnerable Groups in Higher Education Institutions vis a vis the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Higher Education Institutions

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POSH, Vulnerable groups, Higher Education Institutions, sexual harassment, UGC

Understanding the applicability of the POSH Act with Higher Education Institutions

One of the many significant Acts to have come about in the Indian legal system has been that of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, meant to provide safer and securer workplaces for women. The founding idea behind the Act was the promotion of equity in workplaces, in terms of ensuring that workplaces are as safe and enriching for women as it could be for men. The Bhanwari Devi case in 1995, followed by the Vishakha Guidelines in 1997 provided the impetus to the much-needed Act. But in the meanwhile, the issue of safer workplaces began, increasingly, to be challenged in another kind of foundational institutional space-the Higher Education Institutions (HEI).


Understanding the Higher Education Institutions specific guidelines  

The increasing number of female workforce meant an increasing number of female students accessing higher education, often in far-off urban centres.  And in that, female students were often found to face similar hostile working conditions as was recognised in other workplaces. The Nirbhaya Case in 2012, acted as the final nail in the coffin, and the Justice Verma Committee Report in 2013 unearthed the seriousness of the issue. A Task Force was, thus, formed under the aegis of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2013, which conducted an expansive survey of the gender questions, including safety issues, infrastructural issues, hierarchical power relations between the actors, quality of education, evaluation, and harassment and victimisation, this was reported in the UGC-Saksham Report in 2013. The outcomes of the report were eye-openers for the activists, legal practitioners, and the stakeholders in higher education institutions. Accordingly, probable steps, policies, and redressal mechanisms were debated, and eventually the UGC (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2015 and the All India Council for Technical Education (Gender Sensitization, Prevention and Prohibition of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students and Redressal in Technical Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2016 came about. 

One of the ways in which the UGC Regulations of 2015 was more progressive than the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) in Workplace Act of 2013 was in its gender neutrality, in terms of addressing sexual harassment not just for women students and employees but for male and transgender students and employees as well. This gender-neutrality of the UGC Regulations stemmed from the realisation of the Task Force that gender equations were not the sole reasons for vulnerability, and that other socio-cultural issues and hierarchical power relations between teachers and students, employers and employees in HEIs doubled the already skewed gender disparities. Since the principle of equity was also at the foundation of the UGC Regulations, the Task Force realised that creating a safe and secure workplace was not just a gender concern, but an equity concern too. The Bill of Rights in the Verma Committee Report in 2013, also clearly laid out that the right to secured spaces, equitable working conditions and bodily integrity were integral to ensuring human rights for anyone who worked in an office environment, including HEIs. 

Understanding Vulnerable Groups at the Higher Education Institutions 

The Task Force was mindful of the normative and educative role that colleges and universities need to play to transform consciousness to address gender questions on campus, rather than relying excessively on punitive measures, as Minakshi Gopinath as the Chairperson of the Task Force rightly put. To that end, it was realised that sensitisation played an important role in HEIs. HEI authorities, including administrative and academic staff, were also often seen to be unaware of what counted as sexual harassment, or the processes of addressing it. Even when they did, the chosen modes of addressing the question were mostly discriminatory monitoring practices, especially towards female students. Non-gender hierarchies, like caste, class, religion, rural location, minority identity, sexuality, were also, often, overlooked while dealing with sexual harassment in HEIs. In addressing these gaps, the Task Force identified certain groups within the HEI setup, who were the most prone to facing harassment and victimisation—sexual or otherwise. 

Students and employees with disabilities were one such category who due to their unique type of dependencies were vulnerable to abuse. Both physical and infrastructural harassment were parts of experiences of those with disabilities in HEI setups.

Research students, working under supervisors, were another category identified by the Task Force, who were vulnerable to victimisation. Supervisors have decisive powers over their students, and as such are capable of victimising them. To address this, the Task Force suggested ethics of supervision be drawn for making such hierarchical relations between research students and supervisors transparent. 

The third identified category of especially vulnerable groups in HEIs were the teachers, students, and staff in pure sciences, where the ‘perceived gender neutrality in the teaching practices of the sciences’ make it harder to recognise the ways in which power relations and hierarchies work. Collaborative researches and dependency on supervisors for acquiring funding/grants make abuse of position and power easy. Typical working conditions in laboratories, including long hours and isolated working environments, also contribute towards the question of safety for students, especially female students. 

Another category identified was that of contract workers, junior faculty, ad hoc or temporary teachers. The temporary or vulnerable forms of their employment often expose them to abuse and harassment, because of which they even fail to gather the courage to report. 

Intimate partner violence within the HEI setup, especially in those where both actors are related to the HEI, is also identified as a category of especially vulnerable groups which the Task Force felt the need to incorporate within the regulations.  

Taking into consideration such vulnerable groups is integral in addressing sexual harassment questions in HEIs, for the obvious fact that such hierarchies and power abuses are the ones that are usually overlooked. An efficient Internal Committee (IC) for prevention and redressal of sexual harassment in HEIs is the most important step towards addressing the above mentioned issues—constitution and functions of which have been laid out in the UGC Regulations. Premised on confidentiality, non-coercion, and fair inquiry, the IC is designed to address both obvious and not-so-visible victimisations within HEIs, especially keeping in mind the vulnerable categories who often walk tightropes between their employment statuses, working conditions, and unique hierarchical power-plays. Besides IC, sensitisation programmes, UGC booklets, workshop modules, counseling, women’s development cells, encouraging projects on sexual harassment and regulatory aspects like gender-audit by NAAC as part of the evaluation process of HEIs are some of the other important recommendations made in the UGC-Saksham Report, many of which have been incorporated in the UGC Regulations, 2015. 

The nexus formed by gender disparities together with socio-cultural and physical inequalities, work in very complicated ways to make perusal of education and research in HEIs unfavourable for its students and staff. The invisibility of many of these power factors make it even more difficult to address such disparities.  Identifying areas and categories of special vulnerable groups, sensitization of all towards gender questions, efforts to prevent sexual harassment, and an effective redressal mechanism should come together to make HEIs safe, secure and enriching for those working within its aegis. The UGC Regulations are an important step to that end. 


-This Blog has been written by Debdatta Chowdhury who was a participant of the POSH virtual training conducted by SHLC. Debdatta is currently Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). Her research interests include  feminist legal jurisprudence, and gendered identity formations at the crossroads of law, state and citizenship discourses. She has been an Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at CSSSC, where she is currently researching the history of feminist legal scholarship in India, as part of her postdoctoral project.