With a former National University of Study and Research in Law student sharing her horrid experiences of facing sexual harassment and social boycotting on campus, the conversation surrounding campus safety – especially in Indian law schools – has once again gained momentum.
Over the past few days, several law students took to social media to recount their harrowing experiences of facing rampant sexual violence on campuses. This begs us to introspect upon the necessity of structural changes in law schools that hold perpetrators accountable and battle the normalisation of rape culture.
One of the foremost reasons why most survivors choose to share their narratives anonymously on social media is because they do not trust institutional reporting mechanisms, which have often failed them repeatedly.
The University Grants Commission (Prevention, prohibition, and redressal of sexual harassment of women employees and students in higher education institutions) Regulations of 2015 mandate the establishment of Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) to tackle complaints of sexual harassment. However, most institutions lack the establishment of ICCs which function efficiently and are in compliance with the UGC regulations. Constituted ICCs often suffer from a host of problems such as absent or inadequate student body representation, inordinate delays in addressing complaints, failure to maintain confidentiality of proceedings and inexperienced committee members.
It is therefore important to encourage a consistent dialogue between the student body and the administration with the aim of improving the limitations of the constituted ICCs. In order to restore faith in institutional proceedings, policy measures such as provisions for filing of anonymous recommendations, increasing the visibility and outreach of the constituted ICCs and extending protection to whistle blowers must be undertaken. This will result in fostering an environment of transparency and accountability.
There also exists a culture of causal sexism in most law schools which require urgent redressal. Normalising instances of casual banter legitimises sexual assault and more often than not leads to it. Female students are routinely subjected to slut shaming for the clothes they choose to wear and the interactions they have with their male peers. In 2015, a female student of NLUD had penned down a powerful piece on social media regarding women’s experiences with everyday sexism and sexual objectification on campus – a reality that still continues to haunt female students across all law schools.
This internalised misogyny is often aggravated by skewed gendered power relations that exist on campuses. Although interactions with male seniors are often laden with sexist overtones, they are frequently trivialised to facilitate an environment of increased complicity. Calling out seniors for any such problematic behaviour is considered a transgression and can have repercussions in the form of social boycotting and bullying.
An integral part of student culture online happens to be meme pages that are run by law students themselves. These meme pages frequently publish content that is sexist and abusive under the guise of innocuous humour. This further reinforces the prevalence of a culture that reeks of chauvinism.
Moreover, there also exists gender discriminatory regulations in many law schools such as gender specific curfew and library timings, more stringent hostel rules for female students – a manifestation of institutionally sanctioned benevolent sexism. Harbouring such a hostile environment makes it even more difficult for survivors to report or publicise their encounters. Survivors are often forced into silence out of fear of being subjected to character assassination or victim blaming.
Another challenge to making campuses safer is the prevailing attitude of discounting the subjective experiences of survivors in order to protect the integrity of the institution. Perpetrators remain sheltered due to the proliferation of such institutional scepticism in which both the student community and the administration are equally complicit. Survivors who choose to publicise their sexual abuse are often threatened with criminal proceedings and defamation lawsuits in a bid to shield the reputation of the institutions they belong to. We must realise that such systematic acts of condonation gives a free rein to offenders to roam around without the fear of any culpability.
Since most law schools in the country, especially NLUs, have a diverse set of students hailing from different backgrounds and cultural sensibilities, it is imperative to introduce gender studies as a part of the curriculum. Autonomous sensitising bodies such as Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) should also be established and their functioning frequently reviewed. Formal institutional interventions such as inviting external resource persons to conduct compulsory training workshops on sexual consent, gender identity and bystander intervention must also be encouraged.
Institutions must also adopt policies to ban students guilty of sexual harassment from their placement cells and inform potential recruiters about their misconduct. In order to nurture an institutional culture where impunity for sexual exploitation is not tolerated, the collective cooperation of all stakeholders is extremely vital.
It is high time we realise that gender equality should no more be a question of reinforcing a right but should rather be perceived as a way of life. Law schools are the future of our country’s legal system. Let the hope and action begin here.
Aaratrika Bhaumik is a penultimate year student at National Law University Odisha.
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