Harassment crisis in educational institutes

IT is raining anecdotes of harassment and violence against the students across the country. Whether it happens in the premier educational institutes of Lahore, shabby buildings of government-run schools in Southern-Punjab, or a dilapidated madrassah in interior Sindh; sexual harassment and assault in academic institutions is always downplayed.
Educational institutes often believe they can inoculate themselves against legal action and tarnished reputation by denying and ignoring incidents of sexual harassment and assault on their premises. Usually, the investigations in such incidents are delayed; responsibilities are denied; facts are distorted; victims are disparaged and their right to an equal education is devalued.
The recent harrowing anecdotes of sexual harassment in two leading educational institutes of Lahore present scenarios of familiar negligence and institutional apathy. A bunch of female students stormed social media with the videos, pictures, and messages they received from their perpetrators: teachers and staff. Many accused the instructors of inappropriate touching, groping, coercing, and threatening. The harassers warned the students for a reduction in the marks in case of non-compliance. All this happened right under the nose of the administration which kept sitting on the complaints until everything emerged on the social media accounts of the students.
The subsequent vehement public response on social media and the support the victims received from the alumni and public alike speaks volumes about its rampant prevalence in Pakistan. Absence of an effective anti-harassment committee and lack of seriousness led to prolonged misery of the victims who finally summed up their courage to speak-up after several years of agony.
Ignorance, fear of liability, concerns about the public opinion, and bad press is what keeps most schools and varsities turn a blind eye to their utmost obligation: providing a safe and equal opportunity of education to the students.
Schools and varsities claim to take sexual harassment and violence very seriously, yet most of them neither have their anti-harassment policies well defined nor have their harassment inquiry committees working effectively. Preparedness and readiness to tackle real incidents on campus are entirely missing.
When sexual harassment in schools goes un-addressed; the victim is stigmatized. Culprits leaving with impunity creates a culture of violence, aggression, and harassment in society. The notion ‘boys will be boys’ is reinforced. The students learn that sexual misconduct is acceptable, even normal. Impressionable minds of minor students in schools make harassment even more alarming. Several are unable to come out of the traumatic experience they had in their schools for the rest of their lives. Students’ self-esteem stoops low; self-doubt spikes high.
Experts opine that beliefs and attitudes about healthy relationships and sexuality take place early in life and schools must play their part to identify the problem and encounter it by use of words, curriculum, policies, and school culture.
Teachers, school administration, and staff including the gatekeepers, drivers, cleaners, janitors also need training about sexual harassment so they become part of the solution rather part of the problem. Vivid discrimination between bullying in schools and sexual harassment can prepare educators to deal with the issue aptly and educate the students effectively to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment.
Schools must devise comprehensive strategies to protect themselves from liability of sexual harassment. Hushing away the victims of assault, violence and sexual harassment harms the very students the schools are to protect in the first place. Addressing the issue and striving to solve is the most pragmatic approach to tackle harassment in educational institutions.
Similarly; it is vital for the students that they must also understand and report sexual harassment before it is too late. In the USA, every student has to go through comprehensive online training about sexual harassment and the importance of intervention by the bystanders to avert incidents of harassment and violence on campus. Consequently, every student is well aware of what action or statement can be termed as sexual harassment; how to tackle it, and actions needed to help someone in need. There are several student-run clubs on the campus providing support to the victims and creating awareness about harassment and violence on campus.
In Pakistan, the government helpline to receive complaints about sexual harassment can be accessed. Complainants can also directly go to the ombudsman person who initiates the legal proceedings with confidentiality. Online complaints are is filed with Federal Investigative Agency. Parents, on the other hand, must also educate children from a very young age at home about sexual harassment.
Sexual violence in schools and on campus is a pressing civil rights issue: depriving many of equal and safe access to education. Educational institutes should strive to nip the evil in the bud; rather than denying the problem until it can no longer be hidden and burst out on social media.