Since February this year, Anubhuti has been organizing trainings with colleges in Kalyan-Dombivali region on understanding sexual harassment and our rights under Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (POSH) Act 2013. Colleges are important spaces of development for young women, where they prepare themselves to enter the economic field. Safe and unhindered access to higher education spaces are a prerequisite for them to enter the workplace with equal opportunities. However, in our years of experience working with young women, it is observed that sexual harassment or the fear of it is a major reason for young women and their families to choose an all-girls’ college, a college near home, take correspondence classes, or drop out altogether.

Anubhuti is working on this issue with a three-pronged approach: 1. Train college students and teachers on what is sexual harassment and the POSH Act, 2. Train and guide few colleges to set up ideal ICC committees according to the Act, 3. Advocate with Higher Education authorities based on data collected during the above two – to pass an order to compulsorily implement the POSH Act in all colleges of Maharashtra state.

420 college students and their teachers have been trained on the issue. Results of the baseline survey with them and their responses during training workshops show that boys, girls and even teachers have very little understanding of what sexual harassment means, that there is a law that protects us from it, and about related structures in their college. The common notions of sexual harassment are of severe sexual assaults such as rape. The workshops, through everyday examples, explained the wide and inclusive definition of sexual harassment as per POSH Act – which includes all verbal, non-verbal, emotional, mental and physical harassment of a sexual nature. They also informed the students and teachers about provisions of POSH Act, Domestic Violence Act, POCSO Act – all of which we can use for our right against violence. The training module has been designed and is being facilitated by our founder Deepa Pawar.

The experience in colleges was instructive. In one college, when all girls were confused, it was a boy who firmly stated that continuously sending unwelcome messages to a woman, however harmless the messages may be, is sexual harassment. In another, girls realized that not having separate toilets, is actually structural harassment where our body dignity is not respected and we are put at risk of possible harassment. They were dismayed that such harassment is the norm for transgender persons. In another, two teachers revealed, “I did not know that workplace sexual harassment is a crime. We didn’t even know that there is a law and we can speak up about such harassment.” It was obvious how common such harassment is that it is not even thought of as a crime. Another teacher in a college which has an ICC felt after the workshop that they needed to make some changes – “Whether we get a sexual harassment case or not is secondary, but it is our duty to put up a functioning ICC in our college”. In a college attended largely by students from economically well-off families, a game revealed that even in higher classes where body expressions are ostensibly liberal for both men and women, there is still very little actual understanding of harassment and what ‘owning our bodies’ really means.

“Every harassment related to body is sexual harassment, but we never speak or think about our bodies. So how will we take action against harassment?”

Findings from the baseline survey will be shared with varied stakeholders in an upcoming conference. Anubhuti will be working over this and the next year to fulfill the vision of strong ICCs in all colleges of Mumbai and Thane districts – equipping them to be truly safe not just for women, but other vulnerable groups such for transgender youth and disabled youth.

This work is being led by Deepa Pawar as a fellow of the Collective Impact Partnership – a cohort of 20 women leaders of India advocating for economic justice. This fellowship is being run by Rise UpHow Women Lead, the Public Health InstituteGlobal Fund for Women, and World Pulse.