In the past year, Pakistani Twitter flooded with students coming out and talking about harassment they face on campus. Why Twitter? Because there was no other place they could go to. Salman Sufi, founder of the Salman Sufi Foundation, has pledged to change that with the launch of the Safe Campus Initiative.
“There’s no such platform in Pakistan where cases like these are discussed openly,” he told SAMAA Digital. “This only benefits the perpetrator further.”
The initiative is the first platform to help students and faculty facing harassment on campus.
“The initiative is a three-tier process,” Sufi said. If you’ve been harassed on campus, you can send an email to SafeCampusPk@salmansufifoundation.org. A form will be sent back to you, which will require you to make a new email for security reasons.
The complaint will then be forwarded to the university keeping the identity of the victim hidden. “The university will be given time to investigate the perpetrator,” he said. “If the varsity fails to investigate, it will be marked as an unsafe campus.”
This will then be put up on the Salman Sufi Foundation’s social media pages.
Sufi believes that students often have to compromise on their security as they pursue their education. “With this initiative, students no longer have to use their security as a bargaining chip to get an education,” he said.
It is hardly a bargain, in a real sense, but more of a risk, as some students explain.
“I was called to the office of the head of our department and was issued a warning letter which stated that if I do not stop talking about the incident, it might result in a disciplinary committee being called against me,” says Sara, a student at a private university in Karachi’s Korangi. Sara is not her real name.
She had been speaking up against a harassment accusation that took place on campus. A male professor was accused of harassing students by passing inappropriate remarks at them in class and calling them to his office after class timings, when he would act inappropriately.
Sara is not the only student who has been vocal about unease on campus with the way such cases are handled. Student bodies in universities across Pakistan are finding themselves more and more at the centre of a debate on how such cases should be handled. In the absence of formal mechanisms they have turned to the unfettered use of social media to record, expose, debate and amplify the treatment of student safety. A more recent case surfaced at the University of Balochistan where students complained that CCTV footage was being used to blackmail them.
According to Sara, if you do not play by certain rules, you can be threatened by the university management or even expelled. Some teachers deliberately fail students, and in some cases their degrees are not issued in time. The vulnerabilities of students can be exploited by powerful administrations or faculty.
But it is not just students who can find themselves caught up in such cases. Teachers have reported cases of harassment on campus. They are equally at risk of blackmail through videos and photographs.
At the heart of the matter is a lack of anti-harassment committees and rules for campuses.
Pakistan does not have a separate law against harassment on university campuses. It does, however, have a general law on harassment, Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code. It states that whoever sexually harasses a woman shall be punished with imprisonment for three years or fined up to Rs500,000.
There is also the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act which was passed in 2010 and caters to students and faculty on university campuses as well, clarifies Nighat Dad, a lawyer and digital rights activist.
The anti-harassment committees that are now being formed inside universities work on the basis of these laws now. But given the power dynamic on campus, loopholes in the law can be exploited, argues Nighat Dad. “For such institutions, committees without biases should be formed so that complaints are first made before going to the ombudsperson,” she suggests.
To ensure that universities, both public and private, form unbiased policies against harassment, the Safe Campus Initiative will review them and ensure that they meet international standards, claims Sufi.
The initiative uses three standards to evaluate a case:
The university cannot investigate the case itself. It should have it done by either trustees or a special committee. It may include ex-judges, police officers and even civil society members.
The varsity should run a confidential hotline/number to which harassment cases can be reported.
If a faculty member is found to be involved in a case, instead of naming them, the administration should stop them from coming to campus till the case is fully investigated.
A student at a private university, Hawwa Fazal, however, told SAMAA Digital that she would be reluctant to file a complaint this way.
“It is risky because it is very easy to hack information online,” she said. “If it comes out everybody will know.”
This fear of information being leaked is one of the reasons why most cases go unreported. “If proper security of information is assured only then will people be comfortable with sharing their stories,” Fazal said.
Sufi has, however, assured of the security of his initiative. “Nobody will be able to access any information because we have our own set of safety protocols.”
“In more serious cases, we will involve the police and lawyers, with the permission of the complainant,” Sufi added.
There are a total of five government-run helplines to which harassment can be reported. These are not specific to universities. There are two in Punjab, Punjab Women Toll Free Helpline and Women Safety Online, two in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Zama Aawaz and Bolo Helpline. Recently, an MoU was signed with UN Women by the Balochistan government for the Chief Minister of Balochistan Complaint Cell.
Separately, there are many helplines run by civil society organisations. The most well-known, however, is the Cyber Harassment Helpline run by the Digital Rights Foundation. According to a report they recently published, the organisation received a total of 2,781 calls from both men and women between December 2016 and November 2018.
Dad, the founder of the organisation, sans that her helpline is completely secure.
“All our data systems are located outside Pakistan so we are not scared of security concerns,” she said. “We also do not record any calls, unlike other helplines.”