Each time Reema Aswan (name changed), 21, passed through her college’s science section, a guy hanging out in the corridor would whistle at her. After a few days, he began calling her name out as well. She couldn’t avoid the corridor because her classroom was at the end of it, so she ignored the catcalls. But that didn’t solve the problem.
The taunting continued until she graduated, but Aswan did not complain about it to anyone. She is hardly an exception. Although nearly two-thirds of female college students interviewed in a recently completed study said they were sexually harassed, few thought they could do anything about it.
The study, conducted by Akshara, a resource centre for women at Dadar, found that most students did not even know what exactly constituted sexual harassment. Moreover, the study discovered that only one out of ten Mumbai colleges had functioning women’s development cells, although the University of Mumbai had asked all the city’s colleges in 2004 to set these cells up. These cells are supposed address all women-related issues on campus (see BOX).
Akshara interviewed lecturers and more than a thousand students between the ages 17 and 21 years spread across 46 city colleges.
“Both boys and girls perceive sexual harassment as harmless teasing, although they agree that it causes humiliation and reduces self-confidence,” said Ara Johannes, who co-ordinated Akshara’s project.
In cases where students actually recognised that they were sexually harassed, college administrations denied it, she said. “It is a lack of either awareness or interest in the subject,” said Johannes.
What most students euphemistically called “eve-teasing” is actually a form of sexual harassment, a serious offence according to the Supreme Court, which re-defined the term in 1997 (see BOX).
Half the men interviewed said that they had witnessed sexual harassment on campus. In central Mumbai, students said these incidents occurred mainly in secluded areas on college grounds, while in the south and western suburbs respondents reported canteens as the main site.
“When a guy whistles or calls me sexy, I feel humiliated as well as helpless,” said Ritika Chabria, a student from a south Mumbai college. “All I can do is sneer, but tomorrow, he’ll do the same thing.”
Even in the few colleges that have women’s cells, most students did not know they existed, which activists said showed that colleges did not do enough to create awareness. More than half the faculty members interviewed admitted that their colleges’ women’s cells were dormant.
In any case, nine out of ten students interviewed said they would never approach the management. Eight out of ten students from colleges that had women’s cells could not name a single member. So it’s not enough if the cells are formed, they have to be approachable, activists said.