THE SUNDAY STORY There is little doubt that U.S. universities have a long way to go in terms of making women safe on campus

In the wake of the high-profile gang rape incident in New Delhi on December 16, media and public comments have significantly centred on anti-woman attitudes in Indian society, particularly among young men.

This line of introspection is indeed warranted, for there can be little doubt that these values have fuelled an astonishing number of sexual assaults across India — two women are said to be raped every hour in the country and rapes increased by 20 per cent during 2007-11.

However, less has been said about the need for institutional reforms, especially measures to improve women’s security in public spaces such as university campuses. In most cases Indian college administrators would virtually be starting from scratch in terms of drafting a pragmatic and comprehensive university sexual harassment policy and code of conduct.

Could they look to others, such as universities in the West to get a sense of ‘best practice?’

U.S. situation

Sadly, national rape statistics in the U.S., for example, do not inspire confidence. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), one of the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organisations, 207,754 rapes occur every year, approximately 23 rapes per hour, which is significantly higher than the corresponding figure in India. RAINN adds 54 per cent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police and 97 per cent of rapists never spend a day in jail.

However, the under-reporting of rapes is likely to be high in India, possibly even higher than in the U.S., hence the statistical difference in the number of rapes per se ought not to dissuade policymakers from learning from their U.S. counterparts.

There is little doubt that U.S. universities have a long way to go in terms of making women safe on campus, and indeed 2012 may well be considered “the year of rape” in the U.S. too, in the light of several incidents on college campuses and disturbing remarks about “legitimate rape” and a child born out of rape being “a gift from god,” made by conservative candidates during the election campaign season.

Two such incidents, in particular, are noteworthy and exemplify what is right and wrong with systems to prevent sexual violence on U.S. campuses.

The first, which made national headlines for many months, was the Pennsylvania State University case, in which the former college coach, Jerry Sandusky, was convicted last June on 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys in his charge.

Besides spotlighting the often overlooked cohort of male victims of sexual violence, the Penn State case stirred up a nationwide discussion on sexual abuse by authority figures in universities. Though Sandusky was indicted in 2011 for child molestation dating from 1994 to 2009, “the abuse may have dated as far back as the 1970s,” according to some reports.

In a more recent case in Stuebenville, Ohio, two high school football players were arrested and charged with raping a 16-year-old girl and “kidnapping her by taking her to several parties while she was too drunk to resist.”

Similar to the assault on a girl on the streets of Guwahati by a gang last July, a video of which went viral on YouTube, graphic photographs emerged in social media, showing the girl looking unresponsive as two boys carry her by her wrists and ankles.

The Stuebenville case highlights U.S. universities’ continuing struggle with sexual violence involving the use of alcohol and drugs to override consent. But it also showed that dysfunctional masculinity often undergirds the proclivity of men to inflict violence upon women, as indeed The Hindu argued is the case in India (‘The rapist in the mirror,’ January 11, 2013). Given the multi-dimensional nature of America’s rape problem it is appropriate, then, that a prevention-focused, multi-stakeholderapproach has been recommended by numerous studies funded by the U.S. Department of Higher Education.

Checklist necessary

Indian universities would do well to begin by ensuring that a basic checklist of campus security mechanisms has been instituted, including but not limited to 24/7 patrolling of the campus by specially-trained security officers; a 24/7 confidential hotline for victims as well as for anonymous tips; access control or building admits and passes restricting entry to authorised persons; escorts made available 24/7 to and from university-owned property from nearby city areas; registration of all motor vehicles parked on campus; keeping campus physical environment safe by managing lighting, vegetation and emergency phone lines; and video surveillance of campus areas deemed risky.

Such core elements designed to provide ongoing security to students would however fail without sufficient institutional coordination, which would include, for example, establishment of a central Public Safety Office at the university whose contact details are widely and regularly disseminated; links between university security apparatus and the local police, and a strategic coordination body including the highest university authorities which would regularly review and refine the campus security strategy.

As an overlay to this institutional “hardware” to ensure security on college campuses, most U.S. universities give significant attention to getting the “software” right – in other words educating the student community on acceptable and illegal conduct towards their peers including in the context of alcohol use. Drug use would almost universally be identified as illegal and entailing severe legal repercussions, as indeed U.S. universities do in their bid to tackle the worryingly widespread problem of date rape. The University of North Colorado has a mandatory two-hour workshop covering these topics, for all incoming freshmen; it screens applicants for sex crimes convictions.

Define offences clearly

In many ways the education of students and staff on unacceptable sexual behaviour and violence stems from the university’s charter code of conduct, which is often a semi-legal document that defines core concepts such as “rape,” “sexual assault,” “sexual harassment” and “consent.” American University in Washington DC , for example, has a detailed definition of consent and argues that it should be “informed and clear,” “essential each time sexual activity occurs,” “granted without perceived threats, intimidation or coercion,” “not construed from a partner’s silence,” “not assumed from previous sexual relationships,” “not implicit in a person’s manner of dress or appearance,” and “not implicit in a person’s acceptance of an invitation for a meal or a date.”

Indian universities would also need to outline the procedure for filing a sexual misconduct complaint, ideally design the process such that it does not burden the potential victim with onerous legal or other responsibilities at the outset. For example anonymity should be guaranteed unless the law requires disclosure of personally identifying information. Legal protection from retaliatory action by the respondent, especially in the case of a student alleging misconduct by a member of staff, should be readily provided. Students should have the right to withdraw a case midway should they desire. Mechanisms should be instituted for victims to report an incident to law enforcement, file a complaint through the university disciplinary process, and opt to prosecute criminally — all as separate actions.

Finally, when rape or sexual assault does occur, university institutions need to make it easy for victims to find support. Victim support groups must consist of trained and experienced staff for medical treatment, trauma counselling and legal advisory. While victims of rape anywhere in the world face social stigma that exacerbates feelings of shame and guilt, this is nowhere truer than in India, where support from even closest family and friends may not be forthcoming. In the U.S. RAINN notes that approximately 66 per cent of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim and 38 per cent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance. With these figures high in India as well, authorities should not shy away from taking a proactive role in victim support.