Sexual abuse: When the fence eats the grass

Two curious events took place unnoticed in Bangalore amid the torrential rain. The students of a premier law school finally forced the management to bar a professor from teaching. In the other, the staff of an NGO working for human rights resigned en masse. The common reason in both cases: sexual abuse. What makes these incidents stand out is that these two institutions—academia and NGOs—are now seen as the back-up to the government system of human rights protection.

Institutions of society are to protect its members. With the progress in understanding human rights, we have now come to a clearer understanding of this protective role of institutions. We now know that institutions must take care of all during emergencies, and take care of the weakest even during ‘normal’ times. We know that the duties regarding human rights—respect, promote and protect—apply not only to the government, but to all institutions and individuals in society including businesses and non-formal institutions. Two other key understandings have taken place in the recent past. One, that it is not possible for the government to always perform this task—and therefore civil society organisations made of vigilant citizens need to take up the slack. Laws now routinely mention the indispensable role of NGOs in protecting and promoting human rights. The second key understanding is that, however vigilant these organisations are, it needs a society based on a ‘culture of human rights’ to actually protect these rights on a daily, minute-to-minute basis—leading to an emphasis on schools and institutions of learning imparting human rights education.

Unfortunately, even before the ink is dry on these central laws, there have been reports of widespread sexual abuse within the NGO sector and in reputable institutions of higher learning. Students of a premier law school in Bangalore had to threaten strike to get a professor to back off from sexual abuse. It took the combined strength of past and present students together with the past and present faculty to get the management to do so. The management initially refused to take action, emboldening the professor to threaten the students with low marks. Only threat of public exposure, together with irrefutable evidence of late night calls to cell phones of female students could get the management to act. When teachers in nationally reputed law schools can get management support in the face of serious allegations of sexual abuse, what is the point in talking about ‘impunity’ being the chief cause of sexual abuse?

Sexual abuse within NGOs has taken on such serious dimensions that there is even a name for it in NGO circles—the NESA syndrome, meaning Never Ending Sexual Abuse. When there are convictions of child rights defenders for paedophilia where does one draw the line? The NGO sector too closes ranks, with the excuse that the person has done much for the promotion of human rights! In others there is identity politics: the abuser is a Dalit, or the person has done much for Dalit rights, and the accuser is a Brahmin. The same language of ‘greater common good’ and ‘previous historic contribution’ is used to justify the abusive behaviour, leading to a cycle of impunity and greater, more frequent, abuse. NGOs vociferous against human rights abuse elsewhere, suddenly become complicit by their silence, inaction and even outright obstruction.

Human beings are frail, and will commit mistakes. What is inexcusable is that those in positions of authority—the management, the registrar, the governing boards—justify their behaviour and let perpetuators get away with it. NGOs do not believe in ‘punishment’—which is why there is a campaign against death penalty, and for prison reform. But that does not mean leaving a person in a position of authority, where he can continue to sexually abuse subordinates or students. The perpetrators do have a right to life with dignity, just like their victims. But it does not mean impunity. At the very least, it means a transparent and just procedure to remove the perpetrator from all positions where there can be repetitions of unacceptable behaviour. It does mean ‘naming and shaming’.

There is a legitimate strategic need to ‘go after the big fish’. It is true that those lower down the hierarchy are targeted. But the cases mentioned are not of those ‘low down’ in the hierarchy. One is a professor. Another a state convenor of an anti child-labour network. Yet another is the executive director of an offshoot of an international famine relief network. These are positions answerable only to the board of governors. The culture of impunity, as all forms of moral degradation, decadence and corruption, starts from the top. Perhaps NGOs should ponder over this: when NGO workers were asked to categorise themselves in the high-risk, medium-risk or low-risk category for HIV/AIDS based on their sexual behaviour, they all placed themselves in the high-risk category—right along with truck drivers and sex-workers. If NGOs and academia are to be taken seriously in the defence of human rights, then they must first set their house in order. They need to hold themselves to higher standards of behaviour, however difficult it is. Once trust is lost, it is near impossible to regain it.