Sunday, January 17, 2010

Interaction between Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), JNU and Members of Take Back the Night Foundation (TBTN), USA: A Report

Date: 09.12.09
Venue: Room 201, Ad Block, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
(to be published in GSCASH's Annual Report of 2009)
Dr K B Usha, Chairperson, GSCASH, began today’s session by introducing the two main guests- Dr Suraiya Baluch, Director, Princeton University’s Sexual Harassment/ Assault Advising, Resource and Education (SHARE) office and Dr Karen Singleton, Director, Columbia University’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Programme. Dr Baluch and Dr Singleton are also on Board of Advisors for the US-based Take Back the Night Foundation. This interactive session was facilitated by Ms Diane Brandt and Mr Ramesh Jain from the Embassy of the United States of America, New Delhi.
After a round of introduction of guests and participants (list in the end), Dr Baluch began by first quoting statistics regarding prevalent rates of sexual violence in the US. Every one in three or one in five students reported sexual violence/assault by the time they completed graduation while about one in four women in the US faced domestic abuse, often with an intimate partner. Calling this scenario a ‘silent epidemic’, she said that about 80% women in general public knew the perpetrator beforehand while an even higher percentage of women (90%-94%) knew them beforehand in college campuses, as opposed to the widespread myth that only strangers or unknown people harass women. Quoting data from a study called ‘Drawing the Line,’ she observed that about 60% women reported sexual violence in their Universities while men reported how they only ‘joked and teased women,’ something that amounted to serious harassment for women as it depressed them, made them lose interest in studies, drop out of classes, develop low self-esteem and so on. In another study on younger mid-school children aged about 13 years, she found that about 80% girls were facing sexual harassment and bullying. A similarly high percentage of boys were found to face the same, though most of the times it went underreported. Clarifying misconceptions about an exaggerated rate of reporting of crimes of violence against women, she quoted form a study done by the FBI that revealed that in 97%-98% cases, women actually faced harassment when they reported it. It was only in 2%-3% cases where they made up stories about violence against them. Quoting yet another study done by the Department of Justice, she said about 20% women faced abuse in their present relationship and about 30% have faced abuse in past relationships. Every one in five or one in eight boys faced sexual abuse and found very difficult to talk about it or acknowledge it openly. These statistics reveal that sexual violence and sexual harassment is a challenging problem in the US as well.
After dwelling on statistics of Violence Against Women (VAW) for a while, Dr Baluch then went on to discuss initiatives taken by her group to deal with the current situation within her University campus at Princeton. She spoke about popularising ‘risk reduction’ programmes initaially, which included self-defense classes for women, go-with-a-buddy system i.e. don’t go alone and so on. But all these efforts focused on individuals, so their current emphasis is more towards ‘primary prevention’, which concerns changing social attitudes of people as a community, like questioning men when they casually make rape jokes or rape comments. The aim of such exercises, she said, was to try and change societal norms that eventually lead to VAW by dehumanising and objectifying women. The aim also is to try and create a ‘culture of consent’ or a ‘culture of dialogue’ in communities so that they can comfortably discuss things related to sex, even though media portrays Americans to be a very ‘open culture’ when it comes to discussing sex, but that’s not the case. People need to realise that they’ll need consent of the other person before doing anything they wanted, she said.
Introducing the ‘Bystander Intervention’ (BI) programme in communities, Dr Baluch said that more often than not, cases of sexual violence get bracketed as a ‘family problem’, ‘couple’s problem,’ ‘too complicated a problem’ and so on. So within the BI programme, they try to change this attitude of indifference and make every one feel responsible about intervening and not letting the situation of someone getting harassed, go by. For achieving this, Dr Baluch and her group have conducted workshops, media campaigns, printed T–shirts that say, for instance, ‘Be a friend, not a bystander’ etc. Quoting research on Bystander Behavior, she revealed that more the number of people around the victim, lesser the chances she’ll get help from anyone, which is something that goes against intuition, but ‘pluralistic ignorance’ compels most people to fear physical confrontation or fear embarrassment hence their decision to cop out, especially when they see no one coming forward to help the victim. In this context, she said that the BI programme introduces people to the method of low-key, non-confrontational intervention, for instance by using a prompt joke to disperse tension or talking to the concerned person himself or through someone else, but later on etc. Her group of volunteers meet every week to share experiences about when they intervened in such cases and when they did not, to facilitate maximum learning for every one. Also people, when in trouble, are encouraged to help themselves by making eye contact with a bystander, to personalize that interaction, and instruct him/her to call the police and so on. In that sense, BI programme basically involves interacting with every one from the community, who is present at that moment.
Winding up her talk on primary prevention, she referred to a study done on male assaulters by Dr David Lesack of University of Massachusetts, where he concluded that about 6% sexual assaulters are repeated offenders, who harass four women on an average. Their attacks aren’t impulsive as against the common belief, but planned and targeted against women they define as ‘vulnerable’, namely those who get drunk, who are last to leave parties, who are new or unfamiliar with the campus and so on.
Dr A P Dimri of the Science School, JNU, made a quick comment on Dr Baluch’s lecture before leaving for another meeting. He opined that sexual harassment in the Indian context is a far more hush-hush affair as compared to the US, as the transition for Indian people from interiors to the city is far more acute. Besides that, he said that the social security system in terms of accessing help through dialing 100 or 101 in case of sexual violence in US is something not as easily done in India. He also observed that Indian girls are ‘stronger’ compared to western women when it came to tolerating abuse.
The second main speaker of the day was Dr Karen Singleton, who began by giving background information on the TBTN campaign that began thirty years ago, when women organized a symposium at Brussels to discuss VAW, and took back lessons from the conference to their respective nations, setting an annual trend of revisiting these issues. TBTN was called ‘Reclaim the Night’ in Mumbai, where it was first held in 1978 in India. Many European and American states, especially college campuses have caught onto this campaign to sensitize people against sexual violence, sometimes even organizing month-long sensitization drives including ‘speak-out’ sessions of hundreds of students, faculty and staff till wee hours of morning as is the case with Colombia University, and special lectures in case of Princeton University, all aiming to raise awareness about the issue of VAW. The good thing is that more and more men are getting involved with such initiatives, she said.
Coming to the philosophy and functioning of her programme called ‘Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Programme’ at the Columbia University, Dr Singleton spoke about a 24-hour hotline, that made available instant care and attention to harassed students, whether in terms of physical assistance for immediate rescue or contacting local hospital or police services and so on. A model called ‘train the trainer’ is followed wherein senior students train junior students basics about VAW and ways to prevent it amongst people around them. As of now, about 155 students were arranging workshops based on the above training model, she said. So efforts at Colombia University are geared towards engaging ‘men for education’ of men within a Men’s Peer Programme, who then go back to their respective communities too and sensitize everyone around this issue. In a ‘trickle down’ manner, men on campus are made to gradually relate with the issue and then take back this experience to bring benefit to not only themselves but to the lives of people they come in touch with. Immediate assistance is available for men who self-identify as victims of assault or as assaulters, she informed. A study done on benefit of this programme revealed that a level of sensitization of campus students was achieved along with a heightened sense of responsibility about their behavior towards others. More men were increasingly understanding how they became part of violating others if they weren’t careful and sensitive enough.
Dr Singleton summarized a six-stage process of assistance provided to men:
  1. Assuaging their concerns and fears about getting falsely implicated in cases of sexual violence, addressing their defensiveness, insecurity about this turning into a man-hating exercise etc. They are told that all men don’t rape but neither do all of them interevene, which is why they were there, to realise the importance of getting involved with issues of sexual violence.
  2. Exposing and hence sensitizing men to high prevalence rates of VAW and informing them about impact it has on women. Mostly men imagine very low statistics about VAW.
  3. Together busting rape myths such as it’s alright to rape or use derogatory words for women who’re drunk or wearing skirts etc. Trying to destigmatize and deal with feelings of fear and discomfort with regard to disclosure about violence, guilt, shame, especially since the person violating them is mostly known to the victim. We try to understand, discuss and generate ideas together, about what it feels like to get violated- numb, confused, dirty, socially branded/targeted, developing self-destructive behavior, physical disorders, getting very angry at some point and totally disconnected at another and so on. This sharing is both healing and triggers learning for everyone involved.
  4. Presenting theories of gender roles and socialization for understanding their limiting impact on people by doing certain exercises, for instance, the ‘gender box’ exercise that entails speaking on stereotypical words associated with men and women, with strikingly similar comments regardless of the background of men and women who participate in the exercise!
  5. Facilitating empathy for each other, for instance, by having dialogue about how one viewed other women in their lives (mothers, sisters etc) and how it impacted them, or to discuss what their idea of ‘power’ is or that of feeling ‘powerless’ is and so on. The aim is to try and understand what it feels like to be in the other persons’ shoes and empathise with them.
  6. Taking action that involves performing many activities like ‘role-play’ exercises for participants, which gives them an opportunity to practice what it would be like to intervene in a real-life situation and in a non-confrontational way, as one part of BI Programme. Dr Lesack’s study identifies several characteristics of men, who are potential assaulters, like those who use degrading words for women, who are generally angry towards them, who try and push limits with women in terms of forcing them to spend more time with them when they don’t want to, lacking empathy for women’s’ feelings, men who exhibit hyper-masculine attitudes etc. So it was found to be more useful and effective when men learnt to correct each other for any of the above characteristics, instead of women being told to be wary of a ‘certain type’ of men as that’s too vague to follow. Other than this, volunteers also distribute hand-outs that and a set of recommendations by the TBTN Foundation.
Winding up her speech, Dr Singleton said that at the time they started work long time back, they were a small project with financial problems but today, after years of sweat going in, they are not faced by those kinds of problems at least.
Dr K B Usha introduced GSCASH, as a decade-old, autonomous institution in JNU campus, attributing three specific purposes for which it was conceptualized- gender sensitization through street plays, public meetings, workshops etc, crisis management and mediation (that excludes cases of domestic violence that are handed over to associated NGOs) and a complaint redressal mechanism, wherein a screening committee first decides if the case merits formal enquiry, which is the next level, after which, if necessary, punitive action is taken against the perpetrator. Maximum cases, especially this year, pertain to grievances of one student against another student, she informed. Due to the lack of a legal definition of sexual harassment other than the Visakha Judgment, the real challenge for us, she said, was to decide whether or not it’s a case of sexual harassment at all. Other than that, any case that comes to GSCASH is complicated and multi-dimensional in the sense that it has to be seen in its legal, cultural, psychological aspects as well, since this politically vibrant campus caters to people coming from diverse backgrounds. The administration mostly co-operates with us, she said. GSCASH makes recommendations about concerned students, before final action is taken by the Vice Chancellor as he is the ultimate decision-maker in all cases.
For information dissemination, there is a GSCASH information-booklet that explains rules and procedures of the institution in detail and one-page pamphlets that get distributed to the JNU community often. It talks about myths and facts regarding sexual harassment. The pamphlet was originally conceived by utilizing inputs of students and faculty on the issue.
Ending her speech, Dr Usha believes that there are related issues that need more focus and deliberation like issues of masculinity and sexuality, since JNU too is part of a patriarchal set-up, where both men and women need education to make the much-needed transition.
Akanksha Kumar, the GSCASH student representative, began by saying that JNU hasn’t reached a level where, unlike in universities as mentioned by the main Speakers, men also take up pro-active roles with regard to these issues of sexual harassment. It’s more women, who are interested in taking up such issues seriously. Even the GSCASH Committee membership is 50% reserved for women and of the two student representatives, one at least has to be a woman. In the context of JNU, the term ‘gender’ applies to women more than men and many times, discussions revolve around dresses women wear on campus and how they move easily and freely, even at mid-night within campus. JNU is the first to establish GSCASH Committee in the entire South Asian region after the Supreme Court gave guidelines in 1999, even though it itself doesn’t have such a body against sexual harassment!
JNU being a residential campus, cases that come to GSCASH could be student vs. student, student vs. faculty etc. GSCASH doesn’t cover rape as that is considered as a criminal offence. Domestic violence too falls under another act called the Domestic Violence Act of 2005, so is also out of purview of GSCASH. With that Akanksha invited others to participate in discussions and ask questions from guest Speakers.
Question: How differently is sexual violence and sexual harassment conceptualized and handled in your universities?- Rebecca John
Answer: Responding first to Akanksha’s comment, Dr Baluch said that in the context of the US, there are a lot many covert issues of sexism and misogyny that have to be dealt with, just as the overt ones. There’s work on micro-aggression (against race, sexual orientation), micro-trauma etc which is going on. As for Rebecca’s question, there are different committees that handle cases of harassment and violence. In case of sexual assault, students are free to report cases within University, where they also have facilities for confidential medical/forensic examination. Students can report cases to local police as well, if they like. Though there is no domestic violence policy per se on campuses, the physical assault policy is what is utilized in cases of assault. Students, who feel they have been assaulted can also get their residence and/or classes accommodated to a better time/place slot.
Question: What about fear of social stigma amongst victims, who speak out against their harassers? And does the perpetrator feel stigmatized too? In the case of JNU, levels of social stigma are very high for the victim and the perpetrator, though more for the former. -Shaweta Anand
Answer: It’s a very important question. It’s the same like in any other place, where such acts of speaking-up are seen as committing ‘social suicide’ since most of the time, the victim’s own family objects to them, even friends withdraw, considering harassment or assault as a non-issue, or something a particular man, who’s popular or with straight A-s cannot possibly do! -Dr Baluch
We have to address the problem at the level of patriarchy. For instance, when we had a female Senator, who thought the issue was important, we got pro-women laws passed and legislated. Rape is as bad as murder in the USA but how many of those cases come up and get prosecuted is the question. Laws by themselves don’t mean much. -Dr Singleton
Question: I wanted to first share the context of JNU, where women get preference (5 marks extra) during the process of selection to campus. It’s a place where many cultures meet and live in residential areas, separate for men and women. The unsaid understanding is that males cannot enter female hostels but females can enter male hostels. In such a backdrop, when there was no GSCASH, there was social boycott of the harasser, but with the coming of GSCASH, the time taken to solve cases is so long, that the accused person sometimes submits his degree and moves out of campus, while the case against him lingers on. That could be because of the administration not co-operating, cost-crunch, corrupt police system etc. How can GSCASH deal with these issues? –Neha Wadhawan
Answer: A lot of our work is about imparting training to community within campus and facilitating justice. We do partner a lot with local law enforcement agencies as well. I remember we began in 1990 and have come a long way from there. It’s a long road, with both a positive side and a negative side. Earlier, we had staff and budget constraints, which we don’t have now but what we have now are issues regarding a more consolidated structure and less student participation compared to what it was earlier.
These are some of the things being done around the world like at Rutgers University. There is a ‘Don’t Cancel Class’ campaign wherein, sensitization lectures are promptly given instead of regular class lecture in case that teacher is not available. In case it was a biology class that got cancelled, a lecture on ‘biological costs of trauma’ is arranged, for instance, and in case it’s an economics class, then ‘economic costs of VAW’ gets spoken about. Then, we also utilise bathroom cards that give information about sexual violence. –Dr Singleton
We to have similar bathroom posters urging women to speak up. –Akanksha
We also have public meetings to address these issues. -Dr Usha
Coming back to the earlier point, GSCASH can refer cases to administration, for instance, when someone violates restraining orders, which can then seek intervention by legal enforcement agencies. –Advocate Savita, member of GSCASH Enquiry Committee.
List of Participants (incomplete):
  1. Dr Karen Singleton, Board of Advisors, TBTN
  2. Dr Suraiya Baluch, Board of Advisors, TBTN
  3. Mr Manish Chand, Journalist
  4. Diane Brandt, Embassy of the United States of America, New Delhi
  5. Ramesh Jain, Embassy of the United States of America, New Delhi
  6. Dr K B Usha, Chairperson, GSCASH, JNU
  7. Akanksha Kumar, GSCASH Student Representative, JNU
  8. Advocate Savita, Legal Representative, GSCASH, JNU
  9. Dr Dimri, Hostel Warden Representative, GSCASH, JNU
  10. Rebecca John, Research Scholar, JNU
  11. Deepa, Research Scholar, JNU
  12. Vikas, Research Scholar, JNU
  13. Neha Wadhawan, Research Scholar, JNU
  14. Shaweta Anand, Research Scholar, JNU 
(Photographs courtesy Ajit Kumar)

Following is a report about this meeting published in SPAN Magazine's February 2010 issue.

For all the photos, click here.

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