THE SUNDAY STORY GSCASH plays a critical role in gender sensitisation through workshops, mandatory classes and literature

“You cannot safeguard women by making them invisible. Ensuring safety of women [on campus] means creating a system with an atmosphere of safety, where their rights are visible and protected,” says Ayesha Kidwai of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, an elected faculty representative on the University’s Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH).

The GSCASH, as it is popularly known, has three major functions — gender sensitisation and orientation, crisis management and mediation and formal enquiry and redress. Complaints of sexual harassment can be reported to the GSCASH by students, faculty members and even administrative staff. All complaints are investigated within the laid-down mandate in conformity to confidentiality.

Dr. Kidwai, who was among those instrumental in the setting up of the GSCASH, says the committee has not only empowered the university community but has also created an institution that had no precursor.

A template that has been borrowed by universities and institutions nationally, the GSCASH wasn’t set up through consensus or ideology alone, Dr. Kidwai recalls; it took hunger strikes, marches and public debates to drive home the need for a committee to deal with gender issues.

The GSCAH, notified in 1999, has metamorphosed from being perceived as “opposed to the administration” to an indispensable part of the university.

“The composition of the GSCASH in itself is noteworthy. There are elected and nominated representatives from all sections of the community — students, teachers, wardens, administrative staff — apart from one eminent woman academic from outside the university, one woman representative of a non-governmental organisation and a counsellor,” says Dr. Kidwai. “Gender justice is an issue of the community, which is why there is such varied representation.”

In its initial years, the GSCASH was perceived to be anti-administration, “It was seen as something foisted on the male administrators,” says Dr. Kidwai. “We were asked by JNU lawyers and the administration to proceed only after framing rules. Since there was no precursor to the institution, we took it as a challenge and drafted the rules and the mandate. Over the years, that perception has changed, and the initial scepticism has been replaced by confidence in the system.”

For the students, the presence of a committee that lends an ear and extends a helping hand is reassuring. “It helps that the committee maintains the standards of confidentiality, which protects the students from being victimised or pressured into withdrawing their complaints,” says Sweta Raj, a student representative on the GSCASH.

Besides punitive action, which can include compulsory retirement or suspension, the GSCASH plays a critical role in gender sensitisation through workshops, mandatory classes and literature.

Student education

“Every year when the academic session begins, students are educated on what gender sensitisation means, what sexual harassment means, what can be done if they feel they have been harassed. This awareness not only helps to create a safe campus but also helps people understand their rights and duties. There have been instances when the accused persons didn’t understand how what they have said or done qualifies as sexual harassment,” says Ms. Raj.

“Justice J.S. Verma has praised the GSCASH model and said the University Grants Commission should procure from JNU a copy of its guidelines and examine whether it can be replicated in other universities. But there are grey areas. For instance, the time taken to investigate the charges sometimes acts as a deterrent, especially for women complainants. Speedy justice we expect from the courts is something that cannot be achieved in the administrative process. There is a lengthy procedure to be followed to establish the allegation and then before action can be taken,” says Dr. Kidwai.

And if there are doubts about the committee being gender neutral, there are examples to illustrate that — in 2002, a woman was barred from entering the campus after the GSCASH was able to establish that she had been harassing a male student.