The allegations of multiple instances of sexual harassment and abuse in Chennai’s famed Kalakshetra highlights the need to look into mechanisms in place at educational institutions in Chennai to aid survivors and prevent the recurrence of such incidents.
At present, the University Grants Commission (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of sexual harassment of women employees and Students in higher educational institutions) Regulations, 2015. mandate every educational institution to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to deal with the cases of sexual harassment of all women inside the campus.
Unfortunately, many colleges in Chennai do not have a functioning ICC or take the effort to make students aware of how they can approach the body to raise complaints on experiencing harassment.
What counts as sexual harassment?
The UGC Regulations define sexual harassment as follows:
“An unwanted conduct with sexual undertones if it occurs or which is persistent and which demeans, humiliates or creates a hostile and intimidating environment or is calculated to induce submission by actual or threatened adverse consequences and includes any one or more or all of the following unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication), namely;-
- any unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature;
- demand or request for sexual favours;
- making sexually coloured remarks
- physical contact and advances; or
- showing pornography
(ii) any one (or more than one or all) of the following circumstances, if it occurs or is present in relation or connected with any behaviour that has explicit or implicit sexual undertones-
- implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment as quid pro quo for sexual favours;
- implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in the conduct of work;
- implied or explicit threat about the present or future status of the person concerned;
- creating an intimidating offensive or hostile learning environment;
- humiliating treatment likely to affect the health, safety dignity or physical integrity of the person concerned;
Role of ICC in sexual harassment cases
Jothilakshmi Sundaresan, an Advocate at Madras High Court, says that the main purpose of ICC is to ensure the safety and dignity of women in these institutions. This includes all female students, teaching staff, non-teaching staff and third parties visiting the campus.
According to the UGC guidelines, ICC should be presided over by a senior-level woman employee at the educational institution and have at least one external member in addition to other members from among the employees.
The responsibilities of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) include the following
- provide assistance if an employee or a student chooses to file a complaint with the police;
- provide mechanisms of dispute redressal and dialogue to anticipate and address issues through just and fair conciliation without undermining the complainant’s rights, and minimize the need for purely punitive approaches that lead to further resentment, alienation or violence;
- protect the safety of the complainant by not divulging the person’s identity, and provide the mandatory relief by way of sanctioned leave or relaxation of attendance requirement or transfer to another department or supervisor as required during the pendency of the complaint, or also provide for the transfer of the offender;
- ensure that victims or witnesses are not victimised or discriminated against while dealing with complaints of sexual harassment; and
- ensure the prohibition of retaliation or adverse action against a covered individual because the employee or the student is engaged in protected activity.
Not only are the students protected by ICC, but also the teaching and non-teaching staff. It also includes “third Party Harassment” – a situation where sexual harassment occurs as a result of an act or omission by any third party or outsider, who is not an employee or a student of the institution, but a visitor to the campus in some other capacity or for some other purpose or reason.
Setting up of ICC and formulation of POSH policy
“Many institutions have disciplinary committees or gender cells double as an ICC. However, the guidelines clearly mandate the formation of ICC as it fixes accountability and also helps in keeping track of specific issues related to sexual harassment complaints. It also helps in addressing the issue in a time-bound manner,” says Jothilakshmi.
V Sakthi Rekha, Chairperson of ICC in Madras School of Social Work, says that based on the UGC guidelines, every institution needs to prepare a (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) POSH policy according to their needs. This customised policy should be made available to everyone. The details of the POSH policy and the contact details of the ICC members should be displayed on the institution’s website and other prominent places.
It is very important for all the members and the stakeholders to be well-versed with the existing policy to know what falls under the ambit of sexual harassment, the redressal mechanism available, etc.
POSH workshops must be organised to help sensitise people and spread awareness about ICC and its functions. Both staff and students need continuous sensitisation.
“In spite of the efforts taken to spread awareness about ICC and its redressal, many times students find it hard to approach ICC fearing that their identity will be exposed, their details compromised and the stigma attached to it,” she says, adding that this has been a common trend in Chennai colleges.
Processing of complaints by the ICC
Jothilakshmi explains that the survivor who faces an instance of sexual harassment on the college campus in Chennai (and across the country) should submit a written complaint with specific details.
Unless the survivor is physically incapacitated to file the complaint, which is only in exceptional cases, the complaint should be directly filed by them. Details in the complaint must include information on witnesses to the incident if any.
All the members of the ICC, including the external member, should be immediately informed once the complaint is received. Within seven days of receiving the complaint, the committee should send the complaint copy to the respondent seeking their response to the complaint lodged against them. Within the next 10 days, the respondents should file their responses. Depending on the reply, an inquiry will be conducted.
The inquiry has to be completed within a period of 90 days from the receipt of the complaint. The inquiry report, with recommendations, if any, has to be submitted within ten days from the completion of the inquiry to the executive authority of the educational institution. Copy of the findings or recommendations shall also be served on both parties to the complaint.
The executive authority must act on the recommendations of the committee within a period of thirty days from the receipt of the inquiry report unless an appeal against the findings is filed within that time by either party.
Either party may file an appeal against the findings or /recommendations of the ICC before the executive authority within a period of thirty days from the date of the recommendations.
If the executive authority does not act as per the recommendations of the ICC, then it must record written reasons for the same to be conveyed to ICC and both parties to the proceedings. If on the other hand, it is decided to act as per the recommendations of the ICC, then a show cause notice, answerable within ten days, shall be served on the party against whom action is decided to be taken.
“Depending on the gravity of the offence, action will be taken. If the case also qualifies for a criminal prosecution, then the ICC can refer the case to the police and simultaneously take action at the institutional level,” says Jothilakshmi.
While the case is under investigation, the ICC can also take interim actions like restraining the respondent from reporting on or evaluating the work or performance or tests or examinations of the complainant and ensure that offenders are warned to keep a distance from the aggrieved, and wherever necessary, if there is a definite threat, restrain their entry into the campus.
Jothilakshmi adds that the women can make a complaint against a fellow male student, male staff including teaching and non-teaching staff and also the women staff.
Do Chennai colleges have functioning ICCs?
When Kavitha* was a Masters’s student at a state university in Chennai, she was sexually harassed by male staff during a student protest. The male staff had physically pushed her down by punching her chest. When she made a complaint about this to the ICC, a member of the ICC made disparaging remarks about her. Despite having witnesses to the incident, there was no action taken against the staff.
Priya*, a former Master’s student at the same university, went through verbal abuse and was subject to the use of inappropriate language by her guide.
“The professor commented on my appearance and body shamed me. He delayed signing my final project and repeatedly gave many corrections. My friends and family knew it. Since I was from a different state (Kerala) and was also scared of the stigma that I have to face in the aftermath of raising the issue, I did not speak out about it,” she says, adding that even when there were cases of sexual harassment on the campus, not much was done by the ICC or the management and so she did not have hope that her issue will be redressed.
Varshini*, a first-year student at a women’s college in Chennai, has been stalked by a construction worker on her college campus.
“I studied in an all-girls school and now my parents put me in a women’s college citing safety issues. I do not feel safe inside the campus or outside the campus. Be it on the public bus I had to take to reach the college or inside the college campus, the male gaze on me makes me feel very uncomfortable,” she says.
Varshini did not know how to raise a complaint about this issue. The college does not have an ICC but has a gender cell which is said to play the role of the ICC.
Madhu*, a student of a famous private college in Chennai, has been subject to many instances of sexual harassment by her fellow male students. From passing inappropriate comments to touching her inappropriately, the male students have been making her feel unsafe on campus.
“When I mentioned this to one of my teachers, she warned the guys but no action was taken against them,” she says.
Mahisha*, a member of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and a student at Madras University points out that the student council elections are not conducted in many of the colleges across Tamil Nadu.
“Even in cases where the elections are conducted in some private colleges, the management chooses the students and makes them win unopposed. The lack of democracy gives no space for the students to represent their issues,” she says.
Challenges in setting up ICC in colleges
Sakthi Rekha says that many women’s colleges in Chennai claim to not need an ICC as they do not have male students.
“It is a misconception that ICC is not needed for women’s college as the campus will still have security guards, maintenance staff, construction workers or plumbers who are men. Men have access to these campuses through one or another form and so it is necessary to have the ICC to ensure the safety of the women on the college campus,” she notes.
In most cases, the colleges think that their reputation will be affected if sexual harassment cases on campus come to light. They also do not have staff who are adequately sensitised to handle such cases.
To avoid taking responsibility for incidents on campus, most complaints made by students are tagged as ‘false complaints’ and dismissed.
“If the management ensures a safe campus for the students, it will help them produce good results and gain more popularity. The spectrum is so broad that the committee can have the representation of all the people, including the female maintenance staff, who are at risk of being subjected to sexual violence. The management must provide scope for diversity. The more diverse the representation is, the more approachable an ICC becomes,” says Jothilakshmi, adding that the aim is to gain the faith of the students.
Strengthening ICC in Chennai colleges
“The students and all the staff members should also be made aware of the importance and functioning of ICC through sensitisation programmes during the course of the academic year. It should begin from the time of the admission process itself,” says Sakthi Rekha.
The guidelines say that the role of the institution is not only to set up the ICC as a redressal forum to handle complaints but also to prevent and prohibit sexual harassment from happening. To further this objective, the ICC can work hand-in-hand with Gender cells, Women cells or other such initiatives that work with similar goals.
“When we reconstituted the ICC, we also constituted the Gender Equity Cell in our institution, where the staff and the students who were part of ICC were also made a part of the Gender Equity Cell. This helps them understand the gaps in the redress system and how to address it,” says Sakthi Rekha.
“We also conduct exclusive, free and fair elections to select the student representatives of ICC. One representative each from the undergraduate, and postgraduate courses, and one from research scholars. Based on the request of the students, we have also chosen a representative from the hostel residents,” she adds.
Every institution should submit a periodic report to the Directorate of Collegiate Education once in six months and to the UGC once a year. If the institutions do not comply with this, then the onus is on the authorities to follow up to ensure the effective functioning of the ICC.
“Whatever the students learn inside the campus will help them handle the outside world. Recently, a 19-year-old student who faced sexual harassment outside the campus went ahead and filed a police complaint. This happened only because she was equipped with the knowledge of handling such cases through the ICC in her college,” says Jothilakshmi.
*names changed on request