Sexual harassment of female students and women workers are increasingly being reported from different public sector universities in Pakistan. After the controversy of sexual harassment of females in the University of Peshawar, more such reputed institutions made news for similar cases, including the latest scandal of rape and exploitation at the International Islamic University of Islamabad. But are the many private universities in the country safe from such abuses? Answering this and related questions are two young university graduates from a reputed private university in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Imtiaz Naseem Khan and Idrees Yousafzai are both fresh graduates of Sarhad University, a well-known private sector university in Peshawar. Both of them are actively involved in social work and human rights activism, and they frequently organize events for students and young people to create awareness on issues related to social justice.
Ernest: First of all, please tell our readers whether sexual harassment and exploitation are as common in private sector universities as it is in government universities?
Imtiaz: Sexual exploitation is prevalent everywhere and universities and colleges are no exception. It continues to exist as much in private sector universities as it is reported from government universities in our country. Some cases come on record, but many go unreported for various reasons.
Ernest: What university employees are usually involved in such cases?
Idrees: University employees at all levels are involved in it from the very top to those working as drivers and like. Whatever chance they get of sexually exploiting females on campus, they use it to their advantage.
Ernest: What makes girls fall into sexual traps set up by university teachers?
Imtiaz: Many of these girls are sexually trapped by teachers who promise them good grades in exams. Sometimes, girls can be trapped for getting some administrative requirement fulfilled, where the teacher uses his connections to help the girl in return for sexual favors. Once a girl falls into it, psychological pressure and threats of blackmailing by the teachers force her to drown deeper in this mire.
Ernest: How many girls speak up against this kind of harassment and exploitation?
Idrees: I estimate that about 5 to 10 percent of girls harassed or exploited take the courage to speak up against it, and that is usually when they experience it for the first time. Most, however, remain silent for the fear of getting a bad name and public attention in a bad situation. Some choose to seal their lips in order to ensure their career prospects won’t be damaged. Then there are a good many of those who assume silence because they believe that they won’t get justice even if they muster the courage to speak up.
Ernest: And how do male students trap the girls studying in universities?
Imtiaz: The guys in universities use the bait of romantic admiration and promises of marriage and a happy-ever after life to trap girls for sexual use. They take girls out on dates and use gifts etc to entice girls. Many guys assume the make-believe role of a protector or heroic youth only to attract girls for sexual abuse.
Ernest: Now I am thinking of whether girls are made aware via some means of this threat of sexual exploitation when they enter a university for studying.
Imtiaz: Unfortunately, there is no organized, effective effort made to make girls aware of this threat. University prospectuses do include a code of conduct, but those prospectuses are not usually read by students here; and even if read, the code is ignored. Some universities hold orientation sessions for new students, but there too, the information provided is mostly about courses and careers, and not about the threat of abuse or exploitation on campus.
Ernest: What about the female teachers in universities? They must be aware of it, especially the senior ones. Can’t they raise a voice against it?
Imtiaz: We all know that unemployment is very high in Pakistan. In private universities, job insecurity is much greater than in public universities and an employee’s job is solely at the discretion of a single head of the institution, and no one can challenge the authority’s decision. Female teachers remain silent over all abuse and harassment due to the fear of losing their jobs.
Ernest: Last year, the government enacted a special law against harassment of women. Do you think it will be helpful in stopping the advances of sexual predators on campuses?
Idrees: That law indeed was passed and welcomed. But many females are still not aware of it; they continue to suffer due to unawareness. In addition, passing a law does not promise its implementation. To protect women from harassment and exploitation, enforcing the law in spirit is required, which is not the case in our country.
Ernest: In closing, tell me what role can students play in checking women’s exploitation in universities?
Imtiaz: I believe only students can put an end to sexual offenses and abuse of female students. I think it will be very helpful for all educational institutions to constitute a committee comprising students and employees, both male and female, and it should be entitled to investigate complaints of sexual harassment and exploitation. Also, in all student unions that we have here, a special committee should be constituted to create awareness against such incidents.
Ernest: Imtiaz and Idrees, thank you very much for your precious time and sharing thoughts on this important issue.