WOMEN in public universities have demanded institutional steps against sexual harassment since the early 1990s. In 2009, the High Court Division ordered the mandatory institution of anti-sexual harassment committees in all educational institutions and workplaces. The recurrent cases of sexual harassment in educational institutions show that the High Court order has not been taken seriously. The Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education and the Directorate of Madrassah Education, as New Age reported on Saturday, have no information on how many institutions under their jurisdiction have so far set up such committees. The University Grants Commission has records of public and private universities that had complied with the order but says that no action has been taken against non-complaint institutions. The madrassah education directorate, shrugging off responsibilities, blames the madrassah administration as ‘they do not have any direct relation with them.’ As monitoring body, its denial shows why there are so few complaints from madrassah students. It also explains the inaction on part of the Sonagazi Islamia Senior Fazil Madrassah when a student levelled allegations of sexual assault against the madrasah principal. The negligence in the implementation of the High Court order suggests the insincerity of successive governments in preventing sexual harassment.
The death of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, who died after being burnt and sexually harassed, brought rampant sexual harassment in educational institutions in focus, but students are reported to be regularly facing such harassment. Students of computer science and engineering in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University in Gopalganj went on hunger strike and boycotted classes and examinations demanding punishment of a teacher alleged to have sexually assaulted two female students in January. The situation in the university shows how the formation of anti-sexual harassment committees cannot alone address the pervasive problem as prompt action is often not taken. Moreover, students of Jahangirnagar University have previously complained of the patriarchal mentality of committee members and spoke of the harassment a female student has to endure when the accused belongs to politically influential quarters. Such a mentality is also demonstrated in the way the Sonagazi police officer-in-charge discouraged Nusrat saying that the assault on her was ‘nothing serious.’ It is, therefore, important that educational institutions should form anti-sexual harassment committees but for them to become effective, grievance mechanism authorities need to take up such issues seriously. This has, unfortunately, not been the case.
A Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum report shows that there were 15 reported incidents of rapes and four reported cases of sexual harassment by teachers in the first three months of 2019. It is, therefore, time that the government took action against the educational institutions for not complying with the High Court order and instruct all governing bodies and managing committees to monitor the performance of anti-sexual harassment committees to oversee that the allegations are investigated without undue influence of influential quarters.
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