The Times of India, in its Article titled ‘Do Anti-Harassment Cell exist?’ recently reported that an incident involving the rape of an engineering college student by her college mates and another one where a student was subjected to sexual assault, have raised grave safety concerns among the student fraternity. It reported that though colleges have anti sexual harassment cells or Internal Complaints Committee in place, as per the University Grants Commission (“UGC”) mandate, interactions with students reveal that most of them are unaware of the existence of such cells.
One must note that colleges don’t only have a mandate from the UGC to constitute an ICC, but also a mandate under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“Act”) and Rules, 2013 (“Rules”) as the definition of employer under Section 2 (g) of the Act and definition of workplace under 2 (o) (i) clearly include ‘…organisation, undertaking, establishment, enterprise, institution…’ and Section 2 (o) (ii) further includes ‘…undertaking, enterprise, institution, establishment, society, trust, non-governmental organisation, unit or service provider carrying on commercial, professional, vocational, educational…service.’ There is another clear and specific provision related to ‘educational institution’ under the law. Rule 7, which is to do with ‘relief to complainant during pendency of inquiry,’ states that ‘the Complaints Committee at the written request of the aggrieved woman may recommend to the employer to (a)… (b) restrain the respondent in case of an educational institution from supervising any academic activity of the aggrieved woman’. The mandate to constitute ICC comes from Section 4 of the Act.
The Times of India also reported that usually orientation programmes and introductory sessions are great platforms to introduce students to anti sexual harassment cells and their functioning, but that’s not the case in most colleges.
It reported that a first year BA student at Fergusson College, attended an orientation programme but was unaware of the Internal Complaints Committee at her college. Same was the report with respect to colleges such as Modern College of Engineering and Modern College of Arts, Science and Commerce and Savitribai Phule Pune University and some students confessed to having heard the term for the first time.
In this context, it must be noted that the law has laid down several responsibilities for an employer, in this case an educational institute. It states under Section 19 of the Act that every employer must provide a safe working environment, organize regular workshops and awareness programs and display order constituting the Internal Complaints Committee at a conspicuous place. Rule 13 further states that every employer must formulate and widely disseminate an internal policy for prohibition, prevention and redressal of sexual harassment at workplace…, carry out employee awareness programs and create forums for dialogue… and declare the names and contact details of all the Members of the internal Committee. In fact, there is also a mandate that employer must receive an annual report of the number of complaints of sexual harassment filed and resolved from its ICC and provide these details in its annual report or submit it to the District Officer appointed under the Act (Under Section 21 and 22 and Rule 14).
Recently, the Bombay High Court in the case of Vidya Akhave vs. Union of India, Department of Women & Children and Ors., on 4th October, 2016, has also laid down guidelines for the employer, details of which we have covered under this Article.
Times also reported that the students that are unaware about the cells resort to the old way of approaching mentors or professors with their problems. It said that in a recent case, three girl students complained about a non-teaching staff member passing lewd remarks, however, no action was taken by the department and the matter was almost suppressed. When the problem continued, the students approached the Vice Chancellor, following which the department was pulled up for not following procedures and asked to take stern action.
At a time when the Ministry of Women and Child Development is proposing to have gender champions in schools and colleges, details of which we shall discuss in another post, it is high time that colleges constitute an Internal Complaints Committee. Schools and colleges are the places that lay down the foundation of a person. They are the building bricks of an individual. We cannot hope for incidents/complaints of sexual harassment to reduce in future if young individuals are not told about their rights and duties at a young age. Apart from this, the other reason is that an aggrieved woman in a college can be anyone – whether it’s a student, teacher or a complete stranger visiting the college. In case any such individual desires to file a complaint of sexual harassment, and there is no Internal Complaints Committee in the college, not only can the college be penalized as per Section 26 of the Act but also the reputational damage that could follow, to the college as well as the individual against whom such complaint was to be filed, can be severe. Whereas, having an Internal Complaints Committee in place and creating awareness about it, will not only ensure that there is a proper redressal mechanism in college, but would also instil faith in such institution.