Silent no more

13 Nov 2020

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SEXUAL harassment in our educational institutions is an ugly reality that thrives on a culture of silence. On Wednesday, that silence was broken loudly and assertively, that too in a conservative part of the country. Islamia College University in Peshawar was the scene of a large protest demonstration by female students, several from other universities in the city as well, demanding action against faculty members and male students who subjected them to harassment. The students alleged that the varsity administration routinely ignored the complaints of sexual harassment that had been lodged with them. They demanded an empowered committee be set up to investigate these complaints as mandated under the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010.

Pakistan already has an unacceptably steep dropout rate of girl students beyond the primary level. Inadequate number of educational facilities and ambivalent cultural attitudes towards higher education for girls are among the impediments to gender parity in the sector. Sexual harassment compounds what is already a situation fraught with multiple challenges. Sometimes young women have to withstand family pressure in order to attend college. They are often reluctant to push back against unwelcome advances from faculty or fellow students, fearing that if their families find out, they would compel them to leave their studies. Besides this, demands by teachers for ‘favours’ in return for grades can add intolerable stress to a young woman’s mental well-being. There have been a number of incidents in which sexual harassment and blackmail are suspected to have driven female students to committing suicide. Last year, there was the infamous scandal at the University of Balochistan in which a number of surreptitiously made videos of girl students were used to blackmail them into acquiescing to sexual advances by certain members of the administration. A subsequent investigation by this paper uncovered a pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the institution. A number of other similar scandals have emerged in recent years across the country. The Higher Education Commission must ensure that every institute has functional committees, constituted as per the law, to address complaints of sexual harassment; and that the code of conduct is displayed on the premises. It is heartening that the #MeToo movement is spreading in our educational institutions as well; rallies like that on Wednesday reassure victims that they are not alone. No longer should sexual harassers remain complacent that patriarchal notions of honour will protect them from exposure.

Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2020