By Mansoor Malik
LAHORE: The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has drafted “Policy Guidelines” to curb the menace of sexual harassment in institutions of higher education and learning and ensure an atmosphere free from all forms of harassment, exploitation and intimidation.
The commission had started working on the policy formulation against sexual harassment later last year realizing that it was vitiating an environment that was conducive to academic freedom in all higher education institutions (HEIs) in the country. “Ideally, the HEIs are places where administrators, faculty, employee/staff, and students can work and learn in an environment free from intimidating, offensive and hostile behaviours,” the HEC believes.
The commission circulated the draft policy, prepared by a taskforce comprising former vice-chancellors, to all HEIs in the country seeking their comments and inputs for the formulation of a comprehensive policy for implementation.
Since the HEC had given three weeks time for the submission of comments, the commission, it is learnt, has received comments from only 10-15 per cent institutions. To attract more comments, the commission has given another week to all stakeholders to give their response on the draft policy. “Upon receiving maximum comments, a working-paper will be prepared and presented before the HEC’s next executive body meeting for approval and implementation,” says an official concerned.
The official says that comments received by the commission suggest positive general impression that endorses the implementation of a policy. Some suggestions are related to the change of certain words and phrases in the draft policy, it is learnt.
The 31-page draft policy says sexual harassment is a reality that occurs in classrooms, offices, research laboratories and HEI environment. In general, the sexual harassment may be overt or subtle and can range from visual signals or gestures to verbal abuse to physical contact.
The policy says the sexual harassment generally takes place when there is power or authority difference among persons involved (student/teacher, employee/supervisor, junior teacher/senior teacher, research supervisee/ supervisor).
It also involves treating others unequally on the basis of gender in work-related or academic duties or programmes and not providing female students with the same academic opportunities as male students or vice-versa.
The types of behaviour constituting sexual harassment may vary in degree or severity. Its definition has one key element — the behaviour is uninvited, unwanted and un-welcomed. “Sexual harassment is a breach of a trusting relationship that should be a sex-neutral and relaxed situation. It is a coercive behaviour and a violation of professional ethics,” it says.
The draft policy says the sexual harassment in higher education was not a new issue, but had until recently been “a hidden and silent one”. During the last few years, it says, the HEIs personnel ranging from administrators and faculty to employees and students recognized the sexual harassment problem in terms of its lost productivity, time consumption and legal implications (in addition to visible and invisible damage to the victim).
Therefore, each member of HEI campuses must have mechanism to provide their members with an opportunity to develop intellectually, personally and socially in a fair and humane environment.
The policy suggests that each HEI employee and students must be aware of the need for freedom of inquiry and openness of discussion in its educational and research programmes and must strive to create and maintain an atmosphere of intellectual seriousness and mutual tolerance in which these essential features of academic life can thrive.
“No HEI can or should guarantee that every idea expressed in its classrooms or laboratories will be inoffensive to all; pursued seriously, education and scholarship necessarily entail raising questions about received opinions and conventional interpretations,” it adds.
It says that HEI, however, does guarantee that credible accusations of inappropriate sexual remarks or actions will be investigated promptly, thoroughly and fairly.
“In HEIs, the offender and the offender’s supervisors/chairpersons/ directors/institutional heads can be held liable for acts of sexual harassment,” the policy says. It also adds that any administrator, supervisor, manager or faculty member, who is aware of sexual harassment, and condones it, by action or inaction, is subject to disciplinary action.In contrast with the sexually-harassing conduct, the draft policy says, personal relationship among consenting adults within the HEI community is, in general, a private matter beyond the legitimate interests of the HEI.
Still, there are occasions, when HEI’s interests may be seriously implicated in these relationships, particularly where the HEI relies on its employees to make judgments about others. “In Pakistani universities relationships with a difference in power and authority can seriously affect the institutional working as well as the credibility of all involved,” the policy observes.
The draft policy has also listed actually reported sexual harassment cases in HEIs — by teachers, by students and by employees.