Sexual Harassment In Pakistan's Universities Is Driving Victims To Suicide

Sexual Harassment In Pakistan's Universities Is Driving Victims To Suicide
Nadia Ashraf, a young PhD student at Karachi University’s Dr. Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Research, committed suicide because she was allegedly being subject to harassment by her supervisor Professor Iqbal. Nadia Ashraf used to tell her close friends that “Dr. Iqbal Choudhary will not allow me to have a Ph.D. and I don’t know what he wants from me.”

According to the country’s bureau of statistics, only 5.07 percent of Pakistan’s 102 million women ever finish university. Under the guise of mentorship, professors exploit and assault students like Nadia. And students are powerless to speak out due to the threat of a failing grade or societal pressure. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of students who are trying to report cases of sexual harassment happening in universities of both public and private sectors. Several cases have been reported in media from Karachi University, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Quaid-i-Azam University, Balochistan University and others.

In the light of these cases, the Karachi University announced formation of a Harassment Watch Committee in each department and said that a complaints box would be placed in the Vice-Chancellors Secretariat. There would in each case be a three-member committee led by the chairperson of a department or the director of an institute. These would also include the two most senior male and female professors.

There is however a significant caveat. Any referral agency, be it for academic institute harassment, has to have the confidence and trust of those that seek to utilize it. Furthermore, those that constitute the committee, who are tasked with listening to and then investigating such cases should have the competence to do so effectively. These will include counselling skills and building an environment of confidentiality that will give confidence and security to the victims of harassment. Therefore, the committees should be capable, powerful, independent and unbiased.

In a similar vein, a LUMS alumna wrote a letter to the administration of the university, to ‘re-evaluate’ the existing sexual harassment policy of the university. The alumna noted that the universities’ staff members often discourage the victims to pursue formal complaints on grounds that they do not have sufficient evidence and will be caught up in a lengthy hearing process with limited chances of success.

Where such committees have been formed their success has lain with the fact that they are peer-oriented, if not suitably trained workplace colleagues outside of the power hierarchy then closer to the point of referral than senior administration figures. Whilst the initiative is to be applauded, a careful reappraisal of its implementation is recommended. A holistic and policy oriented approach is required and piecemeal action will not work.

Universities are expected to provide learning and working environments wherein all belonging to the academic community can go after their studies, scholarship and work without bias or being harassed. These institutions are expected to lead by setting examples in eliminating gender inequalities among all sections of the academia. However, the truth is, issues related to sexual harassment in academia present a darker picture of Pakistan.

Generally sexual harassment is a sub rosa subject in Pakistani society. Particularly with regards to the higher education, it simply isn't considered a recognized serious social issue. However, sexual harassment is an integral part of violence against women. People usually know that sexual harassment is something which may be swept under the carpet. Just as, women usually take it as a regular matter of their lives. If they get exposure for speaking up, it is often mishandled, misinterpreted, sensationalised and then forgotten.

Protection of Women against Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2010

Recently, under the Protection of Women against Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2010, universities have received reminders from the Higher Education Commission (HEC), asking them to submit the reported cases of sexual harassment, and the names of inquiry committee members appointed at each university. However, so far, none of the universities have bothered to respond to HEC’s instructions.

Nevertheless, there are several misconceptions shrouding the application of this Act. According to HEC all educational institutes will be required to nominate sexual harassment committees, comprising of three members, who will be responsible for investigating any reported cases. With almost 158 universities operating across the country, the HEC had issued Policy Guidelines against Sexual Harassment in Institutions of Higher Learning in 2010, to help raise awareness on the issue in universities. The guidelines are available on the HEC website, but not a single university has bothered to put it up on their institutions’ websites. Nothing has been done to implement and create awareness about this law on campuses.

The Quaid-i-Azam University has been reviewing two cases of sexual harassment but the cases are being investigated under Efficiency and Discipline Rules 1973. It is actually a debate while universities fall under the category of workplace or not. The relationship between a student and a teacher (or staff) is not of an employee and employer. Thus the Act’s applicability at the university campuses is still being questioned. According to the Ministry of Law the Act is “incomplete and faulty”.

The argument here is that confusions about the legislation should be clarified, so the misunderstandings do not surface. If “Protection of Women against Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2010” is not applicable for universities then there must be revised or new legislation for protection of students. The prerogative and responsibility rests with the legislators.

Fixing the system

There is a dire need for systems of early identification, management, reporting and redress of sexual harassment cases. A multisector, multidisciplinary and a multi-stakeholder approach needs to be taken to combat violence against women in every setting. A reactionary approach to students’ harassment, focusing only on punishing the perpetrator or victim blaming will never achieve systematic change. Academic institutions can play an important role in prevention, management and reporting of sexual harassment by developing internal policies.

There is no law for mandatory reporting or that binds universities to ensure that they have mechanisms to prevent sexual harassment.  The majority of universities have not paid attention to safety protocols such as anti-bullying policies, background check and vetting of all staff including visiting faculty and a designated body that specifically deals with issues related to sexual harassment. The codes of conduct in new hire contracts usually do not even have clauses pertaining to privacy such as not being alone with the student behind closed doors.

There is an urgent need to work on systematic changes which caters specifically to sexual harassment in universities. An Offenders Registry needs to be introduced and maintained. The registry should be available to academic institutions, police and the public. The hiring of teachers with previous offenses is less likely this way. An offender teacher should be identified and may be limited in their exposure to students with the help of the registry.

All graduate education programmes should cover human rights with particular attention to women’s rights. All male and female employees of the universities must sign and acknowledge asexual misconduct code covering appropriate and inappropriate behaviours, followed by regular trainings to reinforce it. Opportunistic or grooming dynamics of abuse, gender and culturally ascribed norms that lead to victim blaming or minimize the seriousness of abuse, ethical handling of cases, responding to false accusations etc. must be part of the training of employees tasked with reporting and investigation.

Ombudsperson for the protection of sexual harassment of women should be active and vibrant. Awareness campaigns addressing issues such as bullying and online safety should be encouraged for students. There should also be a larger conversation about sexual harassment in the country. It is time to stand with the women and encourage them to report the perpetrators, so that justice may be delivered.

The writer is a human rights activist and trainer with a focus on UN Mechanism and Child Rights. She works with Sanjog and is Executive Body Member of Child Rights Movement Punjab. She can be reached at She tweets @NabilaFBhatti