Protect female students or protect perpetrators?
We express our solidarity with the students and teachers of Chittagong University (CU) who have been protesting against the sexual harassment of a student and demanding a safe campus since Wednesday. It is deplorable that incidents of sexual violence are occurring with increasing frequency at all campuses in Bangladesh, but what is even more concerning is the ostensible lack of response from the administration to identify the perpetrators and bring an end to misogyny and rape culture on campus. According to reports, the survivor at CU had filed a complaint with the proctorial body before filing a case with the police, but instead of taking prompt measures to punish the perpetrators and assure female students that such incidents would not be allowed to be repeated, the CU authorities instructed them to return to their dormitories by 10pm "to avoid such situations."
The said sexual assault incident took place on July 17, when a group of five men forcibly picked the student and her friend up from Hotashar Mor, took them to the Botanical Garden, beat them up and sexually assaulted her. It has been six days since the incident took place, and yet there have been no arrests, nor any confirmations about the identity of the perpetrators. Police sources and CU BCL insiders confirmed to The Daily Star what the survivor and protesters have been claiming from the first day: That members of Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) were involved in the attack. Why is it taking the police and administration so long to officially come to the same conclusion – that, too, with 135 CCTV cameras all over the campus? Are we to believe that they are not equipped to identify them, or are they simply unwilling? Their lacklustre response to the incident is sending a disturbing message to the students and the nation at large: That those entrusted with students' safety are more interested in ensuring the safety of the perpetrators because of their political affiliation.
Unfortunately, it is hardly an isolated incident. Campus administrations all over the country have protected political cadres and, in the process, empowered them to partake in sexual violence without consequence for decades. They have fuelled misogyny, created unsafe spaces for female students and other marginalised groups, and consistently put the blame on the victims for being "bad women" who venture out at the "wrong time" or wear the "wrong clothes." Despite a High Court directive to ensure functional sexual harassment complaints committees in all educational institutions, they are absent in most campuses or remain in name only. According to teachers and students, members of the investigation cells often don't take action fearing repercussions when BCL activists are involved. Although there is a cell to investigate complaints at CU, it has so far failed to resolve any complaints in the four years of its operation – a statistic that speaks volumes about its effectiveness, or lack thereof.
We urge the administration to respond urgently to the students' demand for a safe and sensitive campus, which begins with ensuring exemplary punishment for the perpetrators of the July 17 incident. It is also high time we implemented the High Court directive and ensured functional complaints committees that take timely action against perpetrators of sexual violence.