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Must boys tease girls?

KALPANA SHARMA

REUTERS

THE Goa rape case, as it has now come to be known, comes as a wake-up call to parents, students and educators. It reminds us, yet again, of the hazards that young women face within educational institutions. Earlier incidents, like the gang rape of a medical student from the Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, or that of a woman student in Jaipur some years back, resulted in some steps being initiated to ensure women's safety on campuses. But this clearly was not enough.

What is worrying about the Goa case is the use of drugs. According to the victim, she was offered a cigarette by a group of boys she knew. After she smoked it, she cannot recall what happened until she gained consciousness and realised that she had been gang raped. And that too not by strangers, but by boys she hung out with.

"Date-rape drugs", as they are called, have been around for some years in the United States but in India such incidents are relatively few unless they have not been reported. They are particularly dangerous because when students enter university, they feel they are young adults, they should be allowed to experiment, to seek new experiences. In the process, girls in particular can unwittingly be abused and assaulted, as was the girl in Goa. The solution, of course, is not to lock up girls, restrict them, forbid them from going out with boys. Instead, they should be provided with accurate information about such drugs and their effects, and how to detect and avoid them.

Unfortunately, young people on our campuses do not have access to adequate counselling and information about such issues. By way of contrast, Columbia University in New York, for instance, has an excellent website called Alice (www.goaskalice.columbia.edu) that answers any question a student might pose on this or any other health or sex-related issue. Students from other campuses, and even students living outside the United States, post their questions on this site. And they are provided with clear answers formulated by a group of health educators and health care providers. As a result, there is a lot of information about date rape and the kind of drugs that can be used to sedate a partner to the point that their resistance breaks down and they even experience temporary memory loss. Some of these drugs are easily available, used primarily as surgical anaesthetics or as sleeping pills. They can be easily slipped into your drink — if it is an alcoholic drink, the effect is more potent. Once drugged, you do not realise what you are doing, or what is being done to you.

Apart from rape, which is the extreme end of the sexual harassment spiral, girls and boys in colleges and university campuses across India experience harassment at many different levels. Often these incidents are dismissed under that inappropriate term "eve-teasing". Some girls in metropolitan cities have figured out how to either ignore sexually explicit comments made by their peer or outsiders or to fight back. But in smaller towns, and even in the larger cities, there are thousands of girls who feel defeated by the constant assault on them by men just because they are women. Every now and then you hear stories of girls who crack under the pressure. Even if they do not break down completely, they pay a price — small hidden costs that often go unrecorded. It is perhaps these very girls who then carry this battering at their self-confidence with them as they go out into the world and into marriage. Perhaps these are the brides that are then harassed and burned for dowry.

Although there are studies about sexual harassment in the work place and violence against women, there is very little that is documented about what young girls and boys go through in their last years of schooling and in college in India. A new publication by the Panos Institute, London, titled "Beyond victims and villains: addressing sexual violence in the education sector" throws up some interesting information and insight on this issue (the document is available on www.panos.org.uk).

It quotes a 1997 survey of 200 women college and university students in Mumbai that found that "39 per cent complained of harassment, including verbal comments, lewd songs, and harassment through phone calls and staring at women's breasts, particularly in canteens and at the entrance gate". Men are reported to have hung around women's toilets as a way to harass them. In addition, faculty members were also "a source of harassment including physical touching, continuous staring, ridiculing female students, introducing sexual innuendo or discomfiting content into teaching and offering marks for sex".

In another survey in 1996 by the Gender Study Group of Delhi University, an astonishing 91.7 per cent of over 100 women students living in hostels said that they faced sexual harassment on the campus almost every day, mostly from men who were not from the university. But they also faced harassment from male students and faculty members. One girl student is reported saying, "I feel angry and humiliated. Often I get worked up just trying to figure out why the hell are men such imbeciles! Why the hell do we have to take all this? Why can't I do something more?" Also, while almost half the students felt that the incidents of harassment did not affect their academic performance, up to 45 per cent said that they were adversely affected. For instance, many of them avoided libraries where they were likely to be harassed, or avoided joining certain courses.

In several African countries this problem is being recognised and addressed. In Tanzania, parents and communities have been included in a female guardian programme that addresses the needs of girls in school. In Nigeria, the Girls' Power Initiative is aimed at girls between the ages of 10 to 18 years. Some of these initiatives are reported in the Panos document.

What is important for us in India is to recognise that sexual harassment begins even when a girl is at school. It has to be recognised, acknowledged and addressed at that stage. Unless real gender justice is built into our educational system, we cannot hope to counter the gender injustice that is still so deeply entrenched in our society.

E-mail the writer at ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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