Sexual abuse at university: Students’ sufferings, teachers’ responsibility

Jagannath University students stage demonstration against sexual harassmentProthom Alo

Fairuz Sadaf Abantika was a student of law at Jagannath University. Had she been alive, she would have begun her career one day as a lawyer or a judge. As her father had passed away, she would have taken up responsibility of the family, looked after her younger brother. That is why like so many others, I was pained at the news of her suicide. It was even more painful to hear the cries of her mother.

The death of Abantika has once against dragged up many questions pertaining to the administration in our higher education, student and teacher politics, the mindset of our society, and many other relevant questions. I will speak about my own feelings in this connection. But at the same time, let me say this – no matter how painful Abantika’s suicide may have been, it cannot be supported. In no way should any student choose suicide as a way out.

Rather than committing suicide, we must protest in an even louder voice. There are good and helpful teachers in every institution. We must turn to them. We must, above all, strengthen ourselves.

I say this with such vehemence because I too grew up through much deprivation, repression and mistreatment. I have written to some extent about this in my book ‘PhD-er Golpo’, and some experiences I have not been able to share with anyone except my wife. I transformed as I went through many experiences in my university life. I began speak out in protest, invoking the ire of certain teachers.

However, I never gave consideration to suicide. I cannot recall any such incidents taking place our youth. I am aware that today, many of those who commit suicide or consider suicide, may be facing much more grievous incidents in their lives. Even so, under no circumstances should suicide be the answer.

We must keep in mind, life is not a 100 metre sprint. Life is more like a marathon. A life filled with sufferings for a short span, may eventually be filled with joy and success. Suicide does not end just one’s own life, but brings an end to the normal life of the family left behind. I have seen the lamenting of Abantika’s mother. Had she thought of her mother’s predicament, I doubt if Abantika would have been able to commit suicide.

Rather than committing suicide, we must protest in an even louder voice. There are good and helpful teachers in every institution. We must turn to them. We must, above all, strengthen ourselves.

A girl who was subjected to sexual harassment in my university, remained firm in her resolve and today stands tall as a judge. The offender had to eventually leave the university. Things will not always turn out in this manner. But had Abantika held on to her patience, she would have had the chance to become a lawyer and taken action against those who had harassed or to work with a human rights organisation to fight for such victims.

From a religious point of view, no religion in this world supports suicide. It is seen as a serious sin. Those who are not of a religious bent of mind, should remember that this is also extremely unacceptable from an angle of social ethics. Attempting suicide is also punishable by law.


So far I have been speaking about one side. Now let me come to those who drive our ingenuous young students towards suicide. There are certain unscrupulous elements in our universities among the teachers and the students. On rare occasions are allegations brought about against a small section of them, rarely are they brought to trial, and even if they are tired, the punishment they receive is nominal.

Just two days ago I read in Prothom Alo about a university teacher in our country being punished for sexually harassing a female colleague. His punishment is that he won't be able to conduct classes or examinations for two years. In other words, he can sit idle and draw his salary for two years! There are many universities in the country that have offices or arrangements to consult for legal advice. I have never heard of any assistance being provided through this office to the victim to file a criminal case against the proven sexual predator.

The action taken by the university administration is often biased. If the teacher accused of sexual harassment is of the pro-government camp, various ploys are adopted to let him off the hook or he is given mild punishment. Some of them are even appointed to senior positions with government backing. Only those who are teachers of the opposing camp are the ones who face serious punitive action of being dismissed from service. If the accused is even a leader or activist of the ruling party's student front, there are efforts to cover up the crime and some teachers even help out in this regard.

After the death of Abantika, it was revealed that another female student was given negative marking by a teacher because of complaints she had made. This may not be commonplace, but such incidents do take place in our universities. To my knowledge, certain teachers resort to negative marking for reasons such as, a. protesting against the teacher for coming late, not taking classes, not teaching properly or bullying; b. lodging complaints of sexual harassment against the teacher; c. objecting to teachers' erratic behaviour, such as taking inordinately long classes or classes at inconvenient timings.

Teachers who resort to such misdemeanours are not high in number. But such behaviour can result in serious consequences in a student's life. When a myth is spread about any teacher's vengeful behaviour, his students as a whole simply accept his wrongdoings. It just takes the anger of one such teacher to ruin the entire results of a student. It is fortunate that there is a second examiner in public universities. But even there, there are certain numbers in the hands of the course teacher (in the law department it is 30). So he had easily damage a student's result out of vengeance. He singularly can render the assessment carried out by the other responsible teachers, irrelevant.

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We know that such incidents occur occasionally. The contamination of politics has a growing impact on the universities. It would have been possible to take action against all this if the university administration had the will to do so. For example, a. including experienced human rights activists or retired judges in the university sexual harassment prevention committee; b. providing courage and support to the student who had complained or sexual harassment or made other complaints; c. scrutinising the teachers' number charts after the results are published, then carrying out an inquiry if the teacher's marking is abnormally higher or lower than others; d. definitely having an evaluation of the teachers by the students. Consultation meetings can also be held to devise further measures that can be taken.

We complain of the low salaries and benefits for our teachers. It is true, the salaries of teachers in Bangladesh is lower than that of any country in South Asia. But alongside increasing our salaries and benefits, our accountability must be increased too. We are all well aware that power without accountability is the basis of all injustice.

The arbitration regarding a complaint of Jagannath student against her teacher took place in the office of the police with the complainant and the teacher present. If we teachers are not more responsible, even more unfortunate incidents may take place in the future.

* Asif Nazrul is professor of the law department law at Dhaka University.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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