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Everything you need to know about sexual harassment committees at schools and educational institutions

Let’s now look at the composition of Internal Committees (“ICs”) at educational institutions like schools, colleges, and universities.

ICs at schools

Since the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, (“POCSO”) protects persons below eighteen (18) years of age, schools often use it as a legitimate reason to avoid composing ICs. But since they also clearly fall within the definition of “workplace” in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“the 2013 Act”), it is mandatory that they constitute ICs.

Students are not the only occupants of school premises. Apart from its teaching and non-teaching staff, parents and service providers such as external housekeeping staff, consultants and visiting faculty, may visit those premises regularly. So it also makes good sense to constitute ICs that extend protection to all the women present.

Educational institutions have to follow the same rules regarding the composition of ICs that apply to other workplaces. The IC must be headed by a senior female employee as the Presiding Officer and it must have two other members from amongst the employees. For these positions, having a mix of teaching, administrative, and support staff represented on the IC, to bring in various perspectives, would be ideal.

Many schools choose to have a parent of one of the students as an external member of the IC. Such an appointment is fraught with conflicts of interest. It is unfair and unconscionable to expect parents of students to remain objective in matters of sexual harassment involving people who are in daily proximity, if not contact, with their child.

Often, a member of the school’s board of trustees or the management is nominated to the IC as an external member. This too, is incorrect. Since schools in India are not-for-profit institutions and usually owned and run by educational societies, trusts, or co-operatives, the members of such parent-bodies should be identified as “employers” under the 2013 Act. So, apart from the illegality involved in appointing them as the “external” member, the appointment also carries an overt conflict of interest.

Interestingly, many instruments of the state (such as the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights) have recommended the formation of Child Abuse Monitoring Committees (“CAMCs”) in schools to provide protection to children from all forms of abuse, including sexual harassment. The composition of these CAMCs is different from that of ICs and should be looked at separately.

ICs at institutes of higher education

Institutes of higher education also need to constitute ICs. The provisions of the University Grants Commission (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2015 (“the UGC Regulations”) recommend two different kinds of ICs, depending on the circumstances.

As you can see, they mandate the participation of students in the inquiry process when matters involve students – either in the capacity of a complainant or a respondent or both.

The UGC Regulations are well drafted and comprehensive in their outlook towards addressing sexual harassment in institutes of higher education. For instance, Rule 4 (3) prohibits the appointment of the heads of institutions (such as Vice-Chancellors, Deans, and even Heads of Departments) to ICs in order to ensure their autonomy.

Similarly, to ensure continuity without promoting incumbency, Rule 4 (4) allows institutions to formulate systems where one-third of the members of ICs may be changed every year.

While the overall administration and management of educational institutions in India leaves much to be desired, these guidelines to help better secure such workplaces, especially for women and children, are a step in the right direction.

Suhasini Rao is the Founder, Director (Products and Operations) at CubeRoute.

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