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Sexual violence in academia must not be ignored

ht view Updated: Sep 21, 2014 23:02 IST
Dhruba Jyoti Purkait
Dhruba Jyoti Purkait
Hindustan Times
Visva Bharati University

Two incidents of molestation have been reported from university campuses in West Bengal in the last one month. In the first case, which happened in Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan, a student was molested by her classmates. The second one happened in Jadavpur University in Kolkata where a woman was sexually assaulted by 10 men. In both cases, the respective administrations took a lot of time to register the complaints.

Sexual violence is rampant in our universities. Unfortunately, silence shrouds such acts and there are no official estimates of the number of assaults. This is partly due to the impression that universities are safe spaces, ignoring the fact they are highly sexualised, with our education system lacking any meaningful training on gender and sexual behaviour.

This becomes obvious when assaults occur on campuses. University officials mimic society, weighing the ‘honour’ and ‘prestige’ of the institution against the victim’s complaint, often prioritising the ‘greater good’ of the establishment when faced with suspects who wield power. The culture of trivialising sexual assault and delegitimising the victim’s account feeds into this. The dialogue on sexual violence in India changed after the December 16 rape case but it seems to have bypassed the academia. While students have been at the forefront of agitations, several colleges and universities either have an opaque policy on sexual harassment or have no panel.

The assumption that academic institutions are progressive because they impart education is erroneous since a majority of teachers and students are products of a larger culture that frames masculinity in a context of physical aggression and justifies violence on women.

Universities are notoriously opaque, making most campuses unwelcoming to women, queer, disabled and non-mainstream people. The first step towards improving the situation has been made in Jadavpur University: Students have come together to demand an impartial body for probing such incidents, an admission that we need to treat our academic institutions like any other public institution.

Sexual harassment and violence is pervasive in ‘liberal’ institutions also. A patriarchal society instinctively identifies with the violator — not the violated — giving the aggressor a sense of entitlement and this remains unchanged in colleges. The sooner we accept this truth, the better.