THE HIMMAT HANDBOOK: A STEP FORWARD TOWARDS SAFER UNIVERSITY SPACES
The Saksham Committee had observed long ago that “Gender equality is not addressed in most campuses whether in the classroom or beyond. There is a definite need to work towards a positive interpersonal climate on campuses.” (1) Yet in 2017, the HRD ministry reported that there was a 50% increase in sexual harassment cases on campus.(2) The #MeToo movement has trickled down from workplaces to universities where students in position of power have been called out for having abused the same.(3) Across institutions accountability is being demanded from respective administrations. In light of this, it has become increasingly important for students to be aware of the anti-sexual harassment framework within their college in order to enforce their rights. While creating awareness is one of the mandates given by the UGC (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations 2015, the efforts taken in this regard have been exceedingly poor.(4)
While the Saksham Report, did address the impact of sexual harassment on vulnerable groups such as the LGBTQIA+ community, students with disabilities, caste minorities or the intersection of any other such vulnerability, this discussion was not carried forward and there are no comprehensive studies or surveys regarding the same. Although the UGC Regulations are gender neutral for students and they accord protection for vulnerable groups, due to lack of awareness efforts in this front, queer students feel like they barely have any recourse and are more likely to quit studies.(5)
Realising how lack of awareness is one of the biggest reasons for the underreporting of sexual harassment cases especially amongst students, last year, the students of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata launched an initiative, which aims to equip survivors of sexual harassment with the support required to tackle Internal Committee (IC) proceedings in universities. The objective behind the initiative is to provide legal awareness regarding anti-sexual sexual harassment laws and also to provide free legal assistance to survivors. Coined ‘Himmat’ which translates to ‘Courage’, the platform provides pro bono legal assistance by connecting survivors to experienced lawyers in the field to answer any queries that they may have. They also spread awareness through their website www.safecollegespace.com which contains information required to pursue an IC complaint, information on how to file a complaint, tips on submitting evidence, recourse available to a survivor etc is available along with free resources like draft complaints.
In pursuance of their awareness program, the team has authored an easy-to-use handbook on the UGC (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations 2015. The handbook has been authored by Himmat’s research wing which comprises students from NLSIU and NUJS and its foreword is written by renowned women rights advocate Veena Gowda and can be found here https://www.safecollegespace.com/handbook. The handbook provides a clear overview of the legal framework and redressal mechanisms available to college-going students in clear and simple manner and is supported by necessary case laws.
The Handbook is an attempt by the team to enable survivors make an informed choice of the course of action that best suits them. Through the launch of this handbook, the authors sincerely hope that the information asymmetry amongst students will reduce, and they will be able to navigate a little more easily through the various difficulties that they face while pursuing legal or extra-legal remedies within their college campuses.
The Handbook has been divided into four parts. The first part deals with understanding what sexual harassment entails and the importance of consent for proceeding with any sexual act. It then goes on to elaborate who comes under the ambit of an aggrieved person and the scope of ‘campus’ under the UGC Regulations through various illustrations.
The second part of the handbook outlines the remedies and protection that a student can avail via an Internal Committee, namely, inquiry and conciliation. It explains the requirements for formation of the IC in a college and the responsibilities of the committee. It concludes with an explanation of how and when an aggrieved person can file a complaint.
The third part of the handbook explains the process of conciliation and inquiry. It also lays down the various stages of an inquiry and the steps to be followed by an IC during the process. It elaborates upon the requirement of confidentiality and the circumstances under which a complainant can maintain anonymity. This is followed by the various interim measures that a complainant can seek while the inquiry is going on. It concludes with an explanation of the appeal mechanism available for parties unhappy with the inquiry and the grounds on which such appeals can be filed.
The fourth and final part deals with the responsibilities placed upon the Executive Authority of a college/university to properly constitute an IC and the consequences of an improperly constituted IC. It also highlights the need to protect groups within such institutions who may be especially vulnerable to sexual harassment. It concludes by explaining the various obligations of an HEI and the recourse available if the HEI fails to comply with such obligations.
(1) University Grants Commission, Measures for Ensuring the Safety of Women and Programmes for Gender Sensitization on Campuses (Saksham Report) (2013) available at: https://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/5873997_saksham-book.pdf
(2) Times of India, ‘50% increase in Sexual Harassment cases on campuses in 2017’ available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/50-increase-in-sexual-harassment-cases-on-campuses-in-2017-minister/articleshow/63383234.cms
(3) The Wire, ‘Survey of 500 Women Finds 1 in 10 Had Been Sexually Assaulted in Higher Education Institutions’ available at: https://thewire.in/women/sexual-assault-higher-education-institution
(4) Preeti Karmakar, ‘Sexual Harassment in Higher educational Institutions, what need to be done,’ available at: http://confluence.ias.ac.in/sexual-harassment-at-higher-education-institutes-what-needs-to-be-done/
(5) Times of India, ‘Queer on campus: ‘Professors seek sexual favours, slash marks,’ available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/queer-on-campus-professors-seek-sexual-favours-slash-marks-on-refusal/articleshow/72829096.cms