Abantika: A victim of institutional neglect

dainikshiksha desk |

In a society rife with sexual and mental harassment, the brave few who stand against the tide are overshadowed by the overwhelming silence of the majority. Survivors, crippled by fear and isolation, often retreat from their communities, leaving the perpetrators free to continue their reign of terror. But amidst the darkness, there are those like Fairuz Abantika (a law student of Jagannath University) who refuse to succumb to the shadows. Abantika exhibited the audacity to come forward to expose a harasser, and sought justice from a blind university administration. But in the end, long-term trauma, persistent bullying, and the administration's indifference compelled her to take her life. In her last Facebook post, Abantika held responsible one of her classmates and the assistant proctor of JnU. She also claimed her suicide to be technically a murder. Yet, even after death, she is facing character assassination from a society quick to blame the victim rather than the aggressor. We all know how victims of sexual harassment are made more visible than harassers when it comes to the pursuit of justice.

In public universities across the country, incidents of sexual and mental abuse persist due to administrations' inaction and the deterioration of moral values. The perception of our top universities is unfavourable when it comes to accepting complaints regarding mental and sexual harassment. Not only do university administrations show apathy, but they frequently make offensive remarks about the protesters and inappropriate comments about their characters. Verbal abuse directed towards female students is commonplace, and regrettably, there are instances where teachers are the ones perpetrating this abuse.

If we look at another incident from the University of Dhaka recently, a female student in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism claimed to have been assaulted by a faculty member of the same department. An investigation committee was established in response to students' widespread protests. The professor was forced to embark on a mandatory three-month leave after being abdicated. The protesters returned to the classroom, and it remains unclear where the case will ultimately end. However, the resolution of such cases often remains shrouded in ambiguity.

Compounding the issue further is the lamentable reality that individuals associated with influential political entities enjoy undue impunity, shielded from accountability even after committing egregious misconduct. This perpetuates a culture of abuse and impunity, and fosters an environment wherein such reprehensible actions persist unconstrained.

Last year, the High Court issued a poignant reminder to educational authorities, stressing the need for the establishment of committees dedicated to addressing instances of sexual harassment within every educational institution. Notably, both the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Education were repeatedly called upon by the HC to adhere to its 2009 ruling mandating the formation of such committees. The High Court, cognisant of the persistent inaction or outright refusal of authorities to comply with this directive, asked them to provide a justification for their non-compliance. Moreover, recognising the gravity of the issue at hand, the HC also urged the government to enact legislation aligned with its recommendations. This judicial admonition underscores the urgent need for concrete measures to combat sexual harassment within educational settings, emphasising the imperative of institutional accountability and the protection of students' rights to a safe and conducive learning environment. It serves as a clarion call to all stakeholders to prioritise the implementation of robust mechanisms aimed at fostering a culture of respect, dignity, and zero tolerance for harassment within the realm of education.

While anti-sexual harassment cells have been established at 45 out of 53 public universities and 71 out of 109 private universities, these cells seem to exist in name only. The majority of students, when polled, reported that they were unsure about where to file complaints or if there was indeed a cell where harassment reports could be made. The universities also didn't organise any awareness activities regarding where and how to file complaints.

Failure to achieve justice in cases of sexual harassment against female students not only sends a disheartening message but also exacts a devastating toll on the lives of bright individuals like Abantika. Her tragic decision to end her life amidst the relentless threats from perpetrators and the deafening silence from the administration speaks volumes about the profound challenges faced by victims in their quest for recourse. Abantika's death epitomises the heartbreaking struggle of those who yearn to stand up against injustice but find themselves thwarted by the overwhelming weight of adversity.

Within the bustling walls of Bangladesh's universities, a silent epidemic rages on, leaving behind a trail of scarred or altogether shattered lives. Behind the facade of academic prowess and youthful vigour lies a harsh reality—a significant portion of the student population is silently battling anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness. In contemplating the repercussions of such systemic failures, it becomes abundantly clear that our collective failure to address sexual and mental harassment not only jeopardises the well-being of individuals like Abantika but also casts a sombre shadow over the fabric of our society. It is incumbent upon us to heed this sobering lesson and redouble our efforts to ensure that no more lives are lost; that justice prevails for all who have suffered at the hands of institutional neglect.

Monira Sharmin is a columnist and independent researcher. 

source: the daily star


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