Educational institutions: Sexual harassment recurs

According to the latest annual report of the UGC, of the nearly 4.42 million students of public universities, including the college and madrasahs, 48 per cent are women. Though the ratio of male and female students is almost equal at the universities, the female students get less facilities from the institutions. There is a lack of women-friendly campuses as well.

Two complaint boxes installed at Jagannath University where the teachers and students can submit complaints of sexual harassmentProthom Alo

Incidents of sexual harassment are taking place one after another in different universities of the country with female students the victims. Sometimes women teachers are also victims of the nefarious crimes.

In the last two years, 27 cases of sexual harassment have been reported in the top five universities of the country. Complaints in these incidents have been submitted to the “complaints committee” formed to report sexual harassment allegations. The committees were formed in the universities following an order of the High Court. However, in most universities, the effectiveness of the committee is low. In many cases students do not know about this committee.

Teachers and students say that many complaints are not submitted to this committee as students keep many incidents secret for fear of harassment. In some cases, complaints made to the university administration are kept secret and no action is taken. When the incidents come to light, the administration becomes active.

This happened with Fairuz Sadaf Abantika, a student of the Law Department at Jagannath University. The proctor office kept her complaint of sexual harassment hidden. The authorities did not even take any action in this regard. Fairuz committed suicide at her residence in Cumilla on 15 March at the face of continued “harassment and threats”.

Before hanging herself, Fairuz Sadaf Abantika wrote in her Facebook status that her classmate Raihan Sidique Amman is responsible for her situation while the university’s assistant proctor Din Islam misbehaved with her taking side of the alleged harasser.

Time and again the University Grants Commission (UGC) sought information of the activities of the committees formed at the universities where the students would file complaints of sexual and other types of harassment.

Though there are committees where anyone can file complaints, actually those are not active
UGC chairman (additional charge) professor Muhammad Alamgir

Speaking about this UGC chairman (additional charge) professor Muhammad Alamgir said the committees are not very effective.

Before joining the UGC, Muhammad Alamgir served as vice-chancellor at Khulna University of Science and Technology (KUET) for two terms.

He said the reality is nearly 70-80 per cent of the victims do not file any complaint as they think they would not get any justice. They also fear further retributions if they get justice. “Though there are committees where anyone can file complaints, actually those are not active.”

Professor Muhammad Alamgir stressed on awareness to fight sexual harassment. He also spoke about changing the recruitment system of university teachers.

The allegations

Following a writ petition in 2009, the High Court directed forming a ‘complaints committee’ at government and private educational and other institutions to prevent sexual harassment. Sources from the UGC said the committee, also known as Cell,  has been formed at 45 public and 97 private universities. The number of public and private universities in the country is 55 and 114 (a few of them are not operating) respectively.

Of the 27 complaints submitted in the last two years, three are in Dhaka University, six in Rajshahi University, two in Chittagong University, 14 in Jahangirnagar University and two in Jagannath University.

A report the National Human Rights Commission submitted to the UGC chairman said a student brought allegation of sexual harassment against a teacher of Social Welfare and Research institute at Dhaka University in November last year. The DU authority was directed to take proper action subject to fair investigation in this regard and inform the matter to NHRC. The report would be submitted on 21 March. The teacher has been relieved of his academic and administrative duties during the investigation period.

Another allegation of sexual harassment of a female student was raised against a teacher of Mass Communication and Journalism Department at DU last month. The teacher is now on three months leave and the matter is under investigation.

Professor Zeenat Huda has been serving as head of the complaints committee for the last two years.

She told Prothom Alo that three complaints were brought against during her term as head of the committee.

The DU sources said investigation of two allegations completed and another one is ongoing.

Five such allegations were brought in Chittagong University in the last five years. Of them, two were submitted after July in 2022. Punitive actions were taken against the accused in all five cases. A professor of Chemistry department was terminated on 16 February as he attempted to rape a female student on 31 January this year.

In Rajshahi University, the sexual harassment and oppression prevention cell received six complaints in the last two years. The committee recommended punishments against the accused in proportion to their crimes after conducting investigations. In one case, the recommendation has been implemented and two are under process. Three investigations could be completed due to “noncooperation from the complainants”, said the cell.

On 21 May last year, the university syndicate relieved a teacher of the psychology department at the university from his academic activities for two years as a female teacher’s allegation of sexual misconduct against him was found to be true.

The documents of the JU cell revealed that the victims filed 14 complaints between January, 2022 and March, 2024. Of them, 12 were settled while two are being investigated. The accused were served different types of punishments in the settled incidents.

A JU student was expelled for six months and fined Tk 50,000 for harassing a female student of the Economics department at the university.

Apart from this, a teacher of Public Health and Informatics department was sacked as his involvement with sexual harassment was found to be true. The allegation was raised outside of the Cell in this case though.

The president of the sexual harassment and oppression prevention cell of Jahangirnagar University professor Jebunnessa told Prothom Alo that they take various initiatives including opening e-mail and complaint boxes and publicising at the departments.

She further said it is tough for the seven-strong committee to inform everyone individually about this. That is why all the teachers should inform students about the Cell in the classrooms.

Besides the incident of Fairuz, two more complaints have been filed to the Cell in Jagannath University. Investigation in a case has been completed while another one is ongoing.

Apart from the top five universities, such incidents of sexual harassment took place in other universities as well.

On 14 March this year, a teacher of Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University in Trishal, Mymensingh was sacked on allegation of harassing a female student sexually after demonstrations. Head of the Human Resources Management department was also suspended for not taking any action even after receiving the complaint in this regard.

Professor Abdul Alim of the Law Department at Rajshahi University conducted a study on 200 female students of graduate and postgraduate level from October 2022 to October 2023. The research revealed 90 per cent victims of sexual harassment do not file any complaint.

The university students and teachers alleged that unnecessary delay is made when any complaint is filed. It was seen that many accused went abroad or retired by that time. In many cases, proper investigations are not conducted if the perpetrator teacher is found to be involved with the teachers’ organisation that support the ruling political party. Sometimes, the university administration wakes up just because of protest movements.

Though the University Grants Commission seeks information from the universities after every six months, they do not receive the information properly especially from the older universities, said Mauli Azad, deputy director of the UGC.

Lack of women-friendly campus

According to the latest annual report of the UGC, of the nearly 4.42 million students of public universities, including the college and madrasahs, 48 per cent are women.

Though the ratio of male and female students is almost equal at the universities, the female students get less facilities from the institutions. There is a lack of women-friendly campuses as well.

Following the incident of rape of a woman on the Jahangirnagar Univeristy campus after keeping her husband confined in a room of Mir Mosharraf Hossain Hall on 3 February, a UGC report said, either the JU authority did not take any proper step or the steps did not bring expected results.

Why such incidents on the rise

The HC made the directives to form the sexual harassment and oppression prevention cell following a writ petition filed by Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA).

Speaking to Prothom Alo on Monday, BNWLA president Salma Ali said their observation is - complaints about most of the incidents of sexual harassment are not filed. The main reason for this is the lack of awareness of the committee in this regard.

Salma Ali further said the incidents of sexual harassment have been taking place due to lack of accountability, timely investigation and visible punishment.

She identified political shelter as one of the reasons too for the rise in such a crime.

[Correspondents of Dhaka University, Rajshahi University, Chittagong University, Jahangirnagar University and Jagannath University helped in preparing the report sending information]

* The report, originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza