According to a 2015 study conducted by ActionAid, 84% of the women and girls respondents from seven cities in Bangladesh face ‘derogatory comments and sexually coloured abusive language’. Another 2017 study of ActionAid stated that a total of 54.7 percent women living in urban areas of Bangladesh face violence including physical, psychological, financial, social violence as well as unwanted touches from strangers.
The civil society movement in Bangladesh against sexual harassment started to build up during the 1990s and in 2009 the High Court Division (HCD) of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh (SC) delivered a landmark judgment on a writ petition filed by the BNWLA addressing the inadequacy of legislation and the lack of effective measures to address sexual harassment at workplaces and educational institutions. The judgement says, it shall be the duty of the employers and other responsible persons in workplaces, and the authorities of all educational institutions to maintain an effective mechanism to prevent or deter the commission of offences of sexual abuse and harassments, and to provide effective measures for prosecution of the offences of sexual harassments resorting to all available legal and possible institutional steps. Furthermore, the HCD further directed that the guidelines must be “strictly followed and observed in all educational institutions and workplaces in both public and private sectors until adequate and appropriate legislation is made in this field”.
However, after almost nine years of issuance of these directives, the presence of an effective mechanism to address sexual harassment against women at educational institutions and workplaces is still not visible in the overall scenario of sexual harassment prevention efforts. While lack of willingness and efficiency on the part of the employers and authorities has been perceived to be a major reason for non-implementation of the guideline, lack of awareness about the very issuance of such directives as binding legal obligations contributes equally to its no-implementation. The present study thus reflects on how far the 2009 SC guidelines on sexual harassment at education and workplaces, have been implemented in practice.
One of the key findings of the present study with regard to private and public universities is the complete lack of awareness about the sexual harassment guidelines among the students. Even in institutions where a sexual harassment committee exists as per the SC guideline, the students are mostly unaware of it. Also, most of the students have no knowledge about the sexual harassment guideline of the Supreme Court and have minimum awareness about the sexual harassment related laws in Bangladesh. Among the 30 University students who answered the structured questionnaire used for the study, 84% of the students were not aware about a sexual harassment committee in their university. 87% of the students had no knowledge about the 2009 SC guidelines, and only 13% had merely heard about the guideline without knowing any further details about what the guideline comprises of.
Among the three private universities whose authorities were interviewed for the study, only one university had a properly functioning complaint committee, although compared to the number of students, the number of complaints was very low. In case of the two public universities whose authorities were interviewed, both of the institutions had a functional sexual harassment committee. However, compared to the large number of students admitted in those public universities, the number of complaints lodged in a year was particularly disproportionate.
The key findings reveal serious lack of awareness about the 2009 guidelines among the employers or authorities of different organizations. Most of the organizations’ senior management representatives are unaware of the 2009 guideline. When the respondents representing various organizations (a total of 14 respondents) were asked whether they knew about the 2009 guideline, 64.5% of the respondents had no knowledge about it and 14% had heard about the judgment but did not have clear understanding or knowledge about the detail guidelines.
- Considering the substantive lack of awareness about the guideline itself, it is important that the concerned authorities should more proactively issue new circulars/notices containing information about the 2009 guideline and its key directives to all the private and public institutions.
- The authorities of the educational institutions, should place more emphasis on creating awareness among the students, teachers and other staff members about the sexual harassment related existing laws, institution’s own policy and the 2009 SC guideline.
- The Ministry of Education, UGC and other concerned authorities should prioritize formulating a detailed plan of action on how to strengthen the monitoring mechanism for implementing the 2009 guideline in every institution and effectively prevent sexual harassment of women in educational places.
- Every organization should design specific training programs addressing sexual harassment at workplaces for employees as well as for the management authorities/employers. Training manuals and booklets need to be published according to the 2009 directives.
- Relevant Ministries and regulatory bodies can take up the role of monitoring various organizations within respective individual sectors over which they have supervisory authority. Such monitoring needs to be initiated as a coordinated effort between all the ministries and government authorities and should be drawn upon a well designed plan of action.
- Lack of awareness about the 2009 SC guideline appeared to be a major drawback in its implementation at educational and workplaces. Hence, it is imperative that a coordinated effort is taken by all relevant stakeholders to increase awareness about the issuance of the guidelines and about the details of it.
- Since the study reflected upon the absence of any effective monitoring mechanism to ensure implementation of the guidelines; formation of a national monitoring committee/cell with representatives from all relevant stakeholders, led by the government can be proposed in a larger level consultation. The monitoring cell may include representatives from concerned ministries, regulatory authorities, trade union leaders, employers’ associations, and other relevant stakeholders.
- A separate legislation should be enacted to comprehensively address sexual harassment at educational and workplaces.
It is thus essential that an advocacy network of all relevant stakeholders take up the challenge of campaigning for the better implementation of the SC guidelines and for progressive legal and policy reforms, which can adequately prevent sexual harassment and protect women from discrimination at educational and workplaces.