Are Bangladeshi universities equipped for the fight against sexual harassment?

The absence of a specific law addressing sexual harassment in the country complicates matters, experts say

Rasel SarkerDU Correspondent, bdnews24.com
Published : 21 March 2024, 08:44 PM
Updated : 21 March 2024, 08:44 PM

Two and a half years following allegations of sexual harassment, the suspension of Abu Shahed Emon, a teacher at the film and television department of Jagannath University, raises doubts about the effectiveness of the university’s anti-sexual harassment cell.

While complaints filed in five universities across Bangladesh over two years have not gone unresolved, concerns linger about the prolonged duration before decisions are reached, casting doubt on the adequacy of administrative action. Certain cases also remain unresolved.

The absence of a specific law addressing sexual harassment in the country complicates matters.

Currently, the only recourse has been a High Court order from May 14, 2009, following a writ petition in 2008. This order mandates the formation of a five-member committee in every educational institution and workplace to address sexual harassment primarily targeting women.

However, over a decade and a half later, despite the presence of anti-sexual harassment cells in most higher educational institutions, the intended objectives have not been realised.

The High Court has called for separate legislation on the matter, a call that has remained unanswered for 15 years.

According to the policy, actions are to be taken within a maximum of 120 working days, yet no action had been taken against teacher Emon in two and a half years.

Emon was finally suspended from his post as lecturer on Thursday after the accusation came to light following the suicide of a female student at the university who was also a victim of sexual harassment.

A survey of 200 university students found that nine out of ten sexual harassment incidents go unreported due to a lack of confidence in the complaint process. Similar findings were reported in a survey by an international organisation.

Furthermore, there have been cases where the privacy of the victim was breached during the complaint process, leading to further harassment.

The protesting students at Jagannath University are demanding a new sexual harassment prevention committee directly supervised by Vice-Chancellor Sadeka Halim to tackle the problem. They believe the current committee, influenced by the syndicate and proctorial body, is not a safe place to report complaints. Additionally, there are doubts about whether the actions taken against teachers are sufficient.

Occasionally, people are fired from their jobs, but usually, they face consequences like delayed promotions, being removed from a course, being placed on compulsory leave, or similar measures.

Even if someone is fired, legal action isn't always pursued, despite it being an option, according to the policy.

Fauzia Moslem, the president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, told bdnews24.com that there is no acceptable punishment for sexual harassment in universities.

“Simply not promoting a teacher for three years, cancelling their increment, or removing them from classes for two years does not constitute adequate punishment. Without exemplary punishment, people will not be deterred. The crucial issue here is the lack of fair trials."

When asked about the appropriate punishment, she said, "The directives from the High Court in 2009 regarding punishment for sexual harassment are not being followed in universities."

“However, guidelines already exist for appropriate punishment for any crime. If these guidelines are deemed insufficient, we can create laws to address this. Legislation should specify the appropriate punishment for each crime."

She added, "In my opinion, if allegations against a teacher are proven, they should be immediately dismissed from their teaching position. Likewise, if a student is found guilty, they should be expelled for life."

INVESTIGATIVE PROCESS AND PUNISHMENT

There is no specific policy outlining the punishment for sexual assault in universities. The syndicate, which is the highest policy-making body of the university, is responsible for making final decisions regarding such cases.

Students have the option to file written complaints with university authorities, including the department chairman, faculty dean, proctor, and vice-chancellor.

Once a complaint is brought before the syndicate by the vice-chancellor, a fact-finding committee is formed to investigate the matter. If the allegations are substantiated, the case is forwarded to the anti-sexual harassment cell.

The cell investigates further and reports to the vice-chancellor. If the allegations are confirmed, the syndicate sets up a tribunal to suggest punishment. The syndicate then decides based on the tribunal's recommendation.

In some universities, complaints can be directly submitted to the anti-sexual harassment cell.

Permanent expulsion usually happens when student protests intensify.

At Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University in Mymensingh’s Trishal, Assistant Professor Sajun Saha was permanently expelled on Mar 14 for sexual harassment charges. Rezuan Ahmed Shuvro, the department head, was temporarily suspended for allegedly protecting the teacher.

Following a female student’s complaint, protests erupted demanding the permanent expulsion of the accused faculty members. Students locked the proctor's office, faculties, and university banks, and brought transportation to a halt. Later, they also blocked the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway.

On Feb 17, 2021, Assistant Professor Sanwar Siraj from Jahangirnagar University's government and politics department was sacked due to a sexual harassment accusation made by a student on Sept 19, 2019.

A student movement was initiated at the university in response to the complaint.

DELAYED ACTION

According to the High Court policy, complaints must be filed within 30 working days after the incident. Following this, the complaint committee will investigate and provide recommendations within the next 30 working days. If necessary, this timeframe can be extended for an additional 30 working days.

Furthermore, if any allegations of sexual harassment are made against someone, authorities must consider it as misconduct and take appropriate action within 30 working days, following the disciplinary rules of all government and private educational institutions and workplaces. If the complaint involves a punishable offence, it should be referred to court.

As a result, all complaints should ideally be resolved within six months.

When asked why there hasn't been progress in two years, Zeenat Huda, a sociology department professor at Dhaka University, who leads the anti-sexual harassment cell, explained: “When someone complains, it goes through many steps. Before it reaches our cell, a fact-finding committee investigates. Then, we review cases based on recommendations from the vice-chancellor or the syndicate.”

She elaborated, "Whoever the person is, ensuring truth and objectivity takes time before making accusations. A death sentence involves multiple layers of review."

“When someone complains, we must verify if the allegation is true. It's important to verify complaints thoroughly to ensure justice."

HARASSMENT IN THE PURSUIT OF JUSTICE

In December 2021, following allegations made by JnU student Kazi Farjana Mim against her department's teacher, Emon, significant events unfolded. The decision raises doubts about whether steps would have been taken without the recent uproar surrounding the suicide of Fairuz Sadaf Abontika, a master's student in the university's law department.

Mim also wrote to the university’s chancellor, President Mohammed Shahabuddin, accusing two teachers of sexual harassment and unfair assessment of an examination.

“I received death threats from my harassers and was on the verge of committing suicide. This is why I have disclosed the matter to the media,” said Mim.

She said that she felt she wasn't receiving justice, especially due to the actions of department chairman Junaid Ahmed Halim.

"As the chairman of the department, he is supposed to be like a guardian to me. Instead, he's siding with the accused teacher," she said.

The university administration has temporarily removed lecturer Emon following the complaint and suspended Halim from his post due to a failure to properly support the victim.

Mim brought allegations of sexual harassment against course teacher Emon amid controversy surrounding the death of Abontika, who died by suicide after accusing a classmate of sexually harassing her.

Before hanging herself from the ceiling fan at their home in Cumilla on Mar 15, Abontika blamed her classmate Amman Siddique and Assistant Proctor Din Islam for her decision to take her own life.

In a Facebook post, she said Amman harassed her with offensive comments online while Din defended Amman and threatened to expel her when she complained to the teacher. Amman also threatened her “offline”, she said.

Police have arrested Amman and Din on charges of provoking Abontika to die by suicide after the university suspended them, pending an investigation.

Before that, Mim went to DB headquarters in Dhaka to notify them of the allegations against the teachers. Mim and the accused teachers were called into the DB office on Wednesday based on the complaints. DB Additional Commissioner Harun Or Rashid heard their stories afterwards.

Since then, several events have unfolded. Images of marksheets of Mim and her classmates have circulated widely. Screenshots showing a proposal to establish an 'intimate' relationship with a student by helping her achieve the top position in class and appointing her as a teacher were shared from a WhatsApp number linked to teacher Emon's phone.

Mim stated that after submitting a written complaint to the authorities, she faced harassment in many forms.

She said, "Following the complaint, the department's chairman Halim and teacher Emon pressured me to withdraw it. When I refused, they threatened to harm me and expel me from the university. I felt isolated. I received failing grades with zero marks in exams, and I failed the final viva of my Honours programme."

Mim recounted, "Those I complained against visited my village home, pressuring my sick parents to convince me to withdraw the complaint. When I refused, I was locked inside a department room and put under pressure in the absence of any female teacher."

DB Additional Commissioner Harun Or Rashid said after discussions, "The two teachers denied threatening Mim or planning to do so in the future."

During the same month, a fourth-year female student from DU's Department of Peace and Conflict Studies filed a complaint against Associate Professor Muhammad Sazzad Hossain Siddiqui. After nearly two years of investigation, Siddiqui's promotion was suspended for three years by the university syndicate on Oct 31, 2023. However, the student's tenure as a student ended during the process.

Reflecting on her experience, the student shared that she faced harassment and mistreatment during the investigation process.

Despite the challenges, she persisted and eventually obtained justice.

However, she is concerned the teacher may try to reverse the decision through legal means.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT COMPLAINTS IN UNIVERSITIES

In the last two years, 29 complaints were filed with the anti-sexual harassment cells of five top universities in the country. Jahangirnagar University received the highest number, with 14 complaints. Rajshahi University had seven, while Dhaka University received four, and both Chittagong University and Jagannath University received two each.

Professor Jebunnessa, head of Jahangirnagar University's sexual harassment complaints committee, shared, "During my tenure, I handled 14 complaints. Twelve have been resolved, and two are under investigation. We take strict action, including permanently expelling one person and suspending another for six months with a fine of Tk 50,000."

Professor Tanzima Zohra Habib, from Rajshahi University's sexual harassment prevention cell, mentioned, "We concluded three investigations and submitted reports. However, in four cases, the complainants did not come forward, making it difficult to find a resolution."

Prof Zeenat has been leading DU's anti-sexual harassment cell for the past two years.

She mentioned that the syndicate made decisions on two complaints based on their recommendations, while two others are still being processed.

Prof Zareen Akhter, head of Chittagong University's anti-sexual harassment cell, informed bdnews24.com, "One case has been resolved, and another is nearing resolution."

Professor Laisa Ahmed Lisa, convener of JnU's anti-sexual harassment committee, mentioned, "One case was resolved in November 2022. Another complaint is currently being addressed."

She said that Abontika did not file a formal complaint at the cell.

‘MOST’ DON’T REPORT HARASSMENT

From October 2022 to October 2023, Prof Abdul Alim from the Rajshahi University Department of Law conducted a survey of 200 female students at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Titled ‘Strategies to Prevent Patriarchal and Gender-based Violence in Bangladesh’s Higher Education Institutions’, the yet-to-be-published study revealed that 90 percent of students who are sexually harassed do not report it.

Of the 10 percent who report harassment, 5 percent report it to the teachers of the department and the other 5 percent report it to the cells.

Ninety-two percent said they did not file a complaint with the cell for fear of not getting justice and having their character tarnished.

In the study, students alleged that those against whom these complaints were made were ‘influential’. They said the teachers could not provide much support to victims and their attitude is not supportive either. Under the circumstances, they feel helpless.

The study found that 56 percent of ‘harassers’ are classmates and that 24 percent were either older or younger than them. Another 11 percent of ‘harassers’ were outsiders and 9 percent were teachers.

“They don’t want to complain because they fear they will not get justice,” Prof Alim told bdnews24.com. “They are scared that not only will they not get redressed, their privacy will not be protected either. No one wants to come forward. It’s only when something happens that they find the courage to speak out. There are long-term consequences to not taking timely action. Many students even become suicidal.”

“In many cases, those involved in the harassment are very influential or politically powerful. There is political and influential pressure to protect them. As a result, many incidents are covered up. Many cases are not prosecuted.”

Prof Alim believes that because sexual harassment is not reported, the harassers can grow more 'violent'.

“A female teacher at our university was also harassed, but she never complained. If he does not complain as a teacher, how can students dare to do so? As no complaint was registered against him he continued to harass several students and even a teacher’s wife. In the end, a minor girl was also grotesquely harassed.”

Dr Zobaida Nasreen, professor of the Department of Anthropology at Dhaka University, thinks that women students do not want to file complaints due to a lack of security.

He said, “When a student wants to file a complaint, they have to consider various things. Our universities have not developed a system that ensures the security of those filing the complaints and ensures they can continue their education.

“Whenever a complaint is made, [the person making the complaint] is subjected to pressure and intimidation. Those who are accused can be arrested, whether they are student leaders, by influential teachers. But, if the accused has a relationship with a political party, there is the possibility of pressure. As a result, many don’t pursue it further. Only if a complainant stands firm till the final stage is the matter judged. The remaining complaints fall away through one process or another.

DU’s Prof Zeenat, said, “Many students file complaints but withdraw them. Complaints must be filed in writing. But many people ask, ‘Why should I give it in writing?’”

A study conducted by the international organisation Action Aid also said that about 65 percent of working women are not aware of the High Court’s directive. About 80 percent of students say they did not know about it either.

WHY THE CALL FOR A NEW PREVENTION COMMITTEE?

Shah Sobhan Sakib, who led the movement at Jagannath University over the death of Abontika, says the current cell is not effective at preventing sexual harassment and a new committee is necessary.

“They form an internal committee from the proctorial team to investigate. Then they submit the results of the investigation report to the syndicate. It is also an internal committee. From there they decide what to do or not to do. The process is very long.”

“If all those involved are internal members, there is an impact. Because everyone on the proctorial bodies has a political background. They try to gain favours whenever there is a complaint against any of their colleagues.”

He said, "We demand that a lawyer and a human rights activist from outside [the university] should be included as part of this committee. If the initial investigation indicates there is truth to the claim then those accused should be suspended from the time of the investigation until a decision is made by the syndicate.”

THE LONG WAIT FOR THE LAW

On May 14, 2009, the High Court issued guidelines to prevent sexual harassment in schools and workplaces. It said that, until there was a suitable law in this regard, it is mandatory to follow and implement this policy.

But in the last 15 years, no law has been passed in this regard. Sexual harassment is also not defined in existing laws.

Bangladesh Mahila Parishad President Dr Fauzia Moslem told bdnews24.com, "Our organisation and several others have sat with the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission to write a law against sexual harassment several times. Now, the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs will take the initiative in this regard.”

“A sexual harassment prevention law is the need of the hour. We want the law to be finalised and for it to pass quickly in parliament.”

AWARENESS NEEDED

Prof Tanzima Zohra Habib, convenor of the Sexual Harassment Prevention Cell of Rajshahi University, feels that it is necessary to raise awareness among students about the cell.

He said, “Many do not know how to file a complaint, how the investigation proceeds, whether their confidentiality is protected or not.”

“We have a plan. I will hold a seminar after the Eid holidays so that two representatives from each department of the university can learn about these issues. By doing this, everyone will be aware.”

Prof Zebunnesa, the president of the Jahangirnagar University Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee said, “We have written to all the faculties, and we will conduct campaigns everywhere.”

“It is not only the committee's job. The entire university needs to be awakened. Teachers should inform students about this cell. Then the harassers will be afraid and victims will be emboldened.”

Dhaka University Vice-Chancellor Professor ASM Maksud Kamal told bdnews24.com, “We are thinking of doing some things to raise awareness. We will train the new students who are coming in on mental health. For this, we are making a manual. It will include the issue of sexual harassment.”

“Often, a student comes from outside the city. He doesn't understand that his behaviour is moving towards sexual harassment. We will note in the manual what kind of behaviour constitutes sexual harassment.”

[Written in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi; editing by Shoumik Hassin]