On a September evening, around 7 PM, Sunita was walking towards her hostel. She was taking the main road which connects her faculty building and the girls’ hostel. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her back, trying to enter her clothes. Terrified, she cried for help. Struggling to fight with two boys, she tried to push them away, crying for help at the top of her voice. The boys sped away on a motorbike. She fainted.
This is how the ordeal starts.
She regained her senses after a few minutes and walked to the nearest security station. When she informed the security guards about the incident, the first question she was asked was, “What are you doing here this late?” She went to her hostel, told her warden, only to get the same response. For the next few days, she ran from one official to another, only to get squarely blamed for the incident.
Ever Indian girl has walked this path of fighting, struggle, humiliation and in many cases, surrender. Thousands of girls who take admission in colleges and universities, filled with ambition to become successful professionals, are failed by the institutions that lower their confidence and tell them in no uncertain terms, “We won’t help in your dreams.” The seeds of gender-inequity are sown during this time.
I run a start-up in Varanasi. I help a few other start-ups as well. Many students who do an internship with us are students of Banaras Hindu University. Sneha, a student of Masters of Computer Applications, couldn’t complete her internship with us because of her hostel timings. After finishing her classes that end at 5 PM, it was challenging for her to immediately work at the start-up. Her hostel closes at 8 PM, so she could only work for a maximum two hours. She had to drop off. A couple of her male batchmates could continue as no such restrictions exist in male hostels. In her final year, she is struggling to get a job, while the male batchmates have either secured or are well placed to secure one. They could finish their internship.
When I was growing up, many of my schoolmates had tuition teachers who were studying at Banaras Hindu University. Many of the male students do tuitions to supplement their income. Often from a poor background, tuitions help them sustain themselves financially. It also helps them stay in touch with subjects that are important for the qualifying examinations for government jobs. Hostel restrictions prevent female students from doing all of this.
My sister did her PhD in Bio-Informatics from a Research Institute, with a residential campus for only PhD students, in New Delhi. She often returned from lab to her hostel, which was on the same campus, at 2 AM in the night. Many scientific experiments take a long time to run and since the instruments are shared among several students, they only get to run their experiments in turn. On one of her trips to Varanasi, she met Nisha, a PhD student in Bio-Technology at a local university. My sister was shocked to know that experiments that she could run daily in her lab, Nisha could only run once in a few weeks. Nisha could practically only use her lab till 5 PM, as girls were discouraged from staying late, citing security reasons. My sister has landed a coveted job in a big pharma company in Germany while Nisha is still struggling to start her career, 2 years after completing her PhD.
Photography students can’t go out for pre-dawn shoots; journalism students can’t cover late-night media events; filmmaking students can’t work on a film shoot that involves night scenes; management students can’t work at start-ups after office hours; music students can neither participate nor attend late evening concerts; visual arts students can’t participate in any workshop that extends until late evening: all such restrictions apply only to female students because they won’t be allowed to enter hostels after 8 PM.
A few days after the incident, Sunita was called home by her parents. She refused to be seen, fearing further harassment and humiliation. The administration has taught her her first professional lesson: to speak up against harassment invites further harassment.
In the past three years in Varanasi, I have seen many such instances where administrative rules create a disparity between the opportunities available to male and female students, always making things difficult for the latter.
If universities are unsafe, is it because of girls? If not, why are only they paying the price, with their careers?
There are many ways to make our campuses safer. Electronic gates at every building, well-lit roads, and an intra-university cab service are just a few that can be easily implemented. This may also encourage start-ups to use the dormant incubation centres inside universities to create the next best thing, with better female participation. For long-term solutions, the easiest thing to do is to get more women to administrative positions.