Bangladesh: University students' victory in sexual harassment case
Source: WLUML Networkers
The High Court gave a landmark judgment today in the first application of its Sexual Harassment Guidelines pronounced on 14 May.
One year ago, in May 2008, four women students at Jahangirnagar University made complaints of serial sexual harassment against their teacher and the Chairperson of the Drama Department, Sanowar Hossain Sunny. The University appointed three separate inquiry committees, which examined witnesses and issued reports with clear findings against the teacher. During this period, the students continued to face threats and harassment.
In September 2008, the University announced that Sunny was ‘exonerated of all charges of sexual harassment as they had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt’. Later the University also proceeded to pass orders of temporary expulsion against four of the women complainants, and two male students who had given evidence in their favour.
Prof Sirajul Islam Chowdhury and others filed a public interest petition challenging the University’s decision and actions. Later the victim-complainants and the two other students also became parties to the petition (Prof Sirajul Islam and others v Jahangirnagar University and others Writ Petition 9414 of 2008).
Today the High Court held that the decisions taken by the University to exonerate Sunny on the one hand, and to expel the students on the other, were both without lawful authority. It also directed the University to hold a fresh inquiry into the incident, with independent persons, on the basis of the new Guidelines on Sexual Harassment pronounced in BNWLA v Bangladesh . Citing judgments of the Supreme Courts of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the Court held that corroboration was not always required to prove allegations of sexual violence, and further that the standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ could not be applicable in cases of this nature, relating to disciplinary inquiries regarding allegations of sexual harassment. The Court also noted that Jahangirnagar University authorities had failed ‘for reasons best known to themselves’ to adopt their own guidelines on sexual harassment, and therefore in the absence of any applicable law, the High Court’s new guidelines should be applied to any fresh inquiry.
A Division Bench comprising Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain and Justice Quamrul Islam Siddiqi passed the judgment today.
The writ petition was filed by eminent citizens Prof. Sirajul Islam Chowdhury and Kamal Lohani, and three human rights organisations, Ain o Salish Kendra, Nijera Kori and Kormojibi Nari. Four women students of Jahagirnagar University who had made complaints of sexual harassment, and two others who gave evidence, were also joined as petitioners during the course of the hearing.
Sara Hossain, with Ramzan Ali Sikder, Ainun Nahar Lipi and Abantee Nurul appeared for the public interest petitioners. Ruhul Quddus Babu appeared for the students.
Complaints: In May 2008, four women students submitted written complaints of serial sexual harassment against Asst Prof Sanowar Hossain Sunny of the Drama and Dramatic Theory Department. The University set up a preliminary inquiry committee, and then a further verification committee both of which made prima facie findings against the teacher. On consideration of their reports, the Syndicate established a Full Inquiry Committee under Section 44 of the Jahangirnagar University Act. This report was submitted to the Syndicate which passed a decision in September to exonerate the said teacher of all charges of sexual harassment on the ground that in the absence of eyewitnesses these had not been ‘proved beyond reasonable doubt’. This decision was passed despite clear findings by each Inquiry Committee against the teacher, including findings by the Final Inquiry Committee of misconduct against the teacher, and that his behaviour was ‘wholly improper and unbefitting of a teacher’ and recommending action against him. The University, despite having powers to do so, had never suspended the teacher pending inquiry.
Appeals filed by the students to the Chancellor of the University, also the President of the country, went unheeded. Expulsion and Threats: In October, the University then reinstated the teacher. Following his return to the campus, and an altercation with students, the accused teacher made a complaint against six students (two of whom were among the women who had made complaints against him and two of whom were male students who had given evidence against him). The Syndicate moved the same day to pass orders of temporary expulsion on these six students. A section of the Jahagirnagar University Teachers Association then held processions and meetings demanding the immediate expulsion of the students, and refused to hold classes unless action was taken. Some of these teachers were at the same time involved in the disciplinary proceedings against the students.
During this entire period, the victim complainants and others witnesses had been subjected to repeated threats and warned that unless they stopped pursuing their claims against the teacher, they would face dire consequences. These threats were reported to the University Authorities but no action was taken.
High Court Orders: On 27 October, the High Court issued a Rule Nisi on the University and also stayed the orders of temporary expulsion passed on the students. It asked Jahangirnagar University Authorities to show cause among others as to why its to exonerate Sanower Hossain Sunny should not be declared to be without lawful authority and why a fresh inquiry should not be held into the matter. It also stayed operation of the orders of the Syndicate suspending six students of the University including four of the women who had originally made complaints against this teacher and two other who had given evidence against him.
The University in its response to the Court stated that it had acted with ‘due process’ and justified the action taken against the student victims of sexual harassment. As a result of the High Court’s orders, it submitted copies of the reports of the three Inquiry Committees to the Court.
Sexual Harassment Guidelines: It should be noted that calls for formulation of Guidelines on Sexual Harassment had first come from students and teachers of Jahagirnagar University, in the wake of earlier incidents of serial sexual harassment, from more than ten years ago, involving both teachers and students as perpetrators. Although the JU Syndicate had mandated the framing of such Guidelines, it ultimately failed to adopt these Guidelines.
In the meantime, in 2008, the University Grants Commission, in the context of the new reports of sexual harassment surfacing at JU and Dhaka University, and in response to calls from women’s organisations, including Bangladesh Mohila Porishod, set up a drafting committee to prepare new Guidelines. This Committee drew heavily on the Jahangirnagar draft, and revised it following consultations with civil society organisations and academics. But ultimately the Education Ministry failed to adopt the Guidelines the decision. Earlier this month, it held that it would not proceed with the UGC guidelines, but instead called on each University to frame its own rules and regulations - leaving victims of sexual harassment with no effective redress. In this context, the High Court's Guidelines in Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association v Bangladesh, pronounced on 14 May 2009, have filled a much needed gap in the law, and today's judgment shows how they can be immediately utilised to open up new possibilities for legal protection and also to hold authorities responsible for creating a violence free educational environment.
For further information, please contact
Sara Hossain, 01713 031828, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruhul Quddus, 01711 434891
Sara Hossain, 01713 031828, email@example.com
Ruhul Quddus, 01711 434891
 Represented by Sultana Kamal, ED, ASK, Khushi Kabir, Coordinator, Nijera Kori and Shirin Akhter, President KN respectively.