The attempted sexual harassment incident at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay has brought to the fore the issue of women’s security on campuses across Mumbai. This anxiety afflicts a majority of girls staying in hostels in the city. Life in a hostel is more than just compromises in facilities for most girls who decide to move out of their houses for purposes of higher education. And in the recent past, a spate of instances like the one at IIT Bombay and Chandigarh University has brought the old question back to the fore – are girls safe in hostels?
“The culprit, in this case, has been caught. But are we really sure that this has not happened before? We are demanding a thorough investigation, especially the one pertaining to the use of mobile phones. There is no other way of knowing if this has happened before. Most girls are apprehensive while going to the common bathrooms now, especially the one where a man was seen peeping,” shared a student resident at the girls’ hostel in IIT Bombay.
The girls have also written to the authorities requesting detailed updates on the cyber investigation in this case. After the incident at one hostel, students from other girls’ hostels in the Powai campus of the premier technology institute are also verifying if all security measures are in place.
“A few CCTVs installed in the particular hostel where the incident of harassment was reported, were found to be non-functional,” shared a student resident.
At a time when girl residents of hostels in IIT Bombay are verifying if the security measures implemented by the institute are sufficient; the worries are far more for students at the Mumbai University (MU). Almost four months into the new academic year and the residents of the Annabhau Sathe Girls hostel in MU are still waiting for their mess to start. Currently, all of them are expected to go to the mess of a boys’ hostel nearby.
“We literally plan our eating times so that there is the company of at least one girl, especially in case of dinner. There is no option but to walk till the boys’ hostel and though it is not very far; the area inside campus becomes lonely by dinner time,” shared a student resident adding that there are so many spots in the Kalina campus of the Mumbai University where there are no street lights, making it scarier affair.
Conceding that the campus is not well-lit, Supriya Karande, a former senior senate member at the Mumbai University and a member of the Women Development Cell (WDC), said: “There is no clear picture of the area of this campus with trees and gardens at multiple places growing haphazardly; there are multiple dark spots.”
Shockingly, earlier this month; the social welfare department which runs multiple girls’ hostels in Mumbai during impromptu inspections found that wardens of several hostels were not staying on the campus. “The commissioner’s office during their inspection discovered that several wardens are not staying at the hostels, which is expected from them to ensure the safety of student residents… But what about hostels where the warden’s position is left vacant? At Santa Mirabai Hostel in Worli, there is no full-time warden from 2019. Recently, a clerk from this hostel was terminated because he had started using the hostel premises in the evening to consume alcohol. He yelled at girls, and commented on their clothes which were absolutely beyond his purview of duty and led to safety concerns for girls residing in the hostel,” said a student resident. She added that action was taken only after they protested multiple times.
According to students, whenever there are such protests, many question their behaviour. “Is the onus of our safety on our shoulders, alone?” questioned another resident as she shared how they are asked to stick to dress codes and other restrictions when living in a hostel. At IIT Bombay, the night canteen is now shut following the incident. Now the students have to walk to the common canteen that is open till late if they have to eat at night.
“If we have to come to the common area; we are told to wear full pants because we wear shorts in our rooms, which is very common. We also have time restrictions, unlike boys staying in a hostel in an adjacent building. In a city like Mumbai, how can we be asked to be back to the hostel by 7 pm?” questioned a resident as she pointed out how several restrictions are put on girls to ensure their ‘safety’. The situation is the same in Mumbai University hostels, too, where there are different deadlines for girls and boys.
The WDC at Mumbai University has started an awareness program by introducing short-term courses on gender equality. The course also has 2-credits which they feel will encourage more students to take up the course. The IIT Bombay, too, has launched a mandatory gender awareness course. Whereas the social welfare department has launched a new initiative – Sanwaad, which literally means dialogue with an aim to develop channels of open communication between the students and the authorities. “While strict warnings have been issued for wardens to start staying at hostels; we are also asking local officers to spend 24 hours in hostels periodically to facilitate one-on-one communication with students,” said Prashant Narnaware, commissioner, social welfare department.