Touchy issue in Chinese varsities sparks outrage

Female students harassed by educators often feel defenceless against cultural and institutional barriers

This story first appeared in The Sunday Times on Dec 7, 2014.

Whether it was his hand holding hers to guide her while drawing or one of his arms brushing deliberately across her neck and shoulders, Ms Sun Xin used to bristle uncomfortably whenever her art professor came too close.

"I was shocked at first as such contact felt inappropriate, but soon got used to it as he was touchy- feely with all our female classmates," the 24-year-old art graduate tells The Sunday Times. "In fact, most of our art professors were the same."

Ms Sun, who graduated with an art degree from a university in coastal Zhejiang province last year, is not alone in having to put up with such unwanted advances from educators.

A recent survey by the government-backed All China Women's Federation found that 57 per cent of female university students in cities such as Beijing and Nanjing have experienced some form of sexual harassment, with about one in four of the 1,200 students surveyed describing the problem as very serious.

These young women feel defenceless against a traditional culture that sees them, at times, as instigators rather than victims, and against institutional barriers that make it difficult for them to lodge complaints.

But a string of university sex scandals that came to light in recent months has sparked public outrage and drawn attention to the previously taboo topic.

Last month, a professor at Peking University was sacked after his relationship with a Singaporean doctoral student was exposed. The married professor allegedly duped the student, who is now pregnant, into a relationship by claiming to be single, media reports say.

In another case, photographs showing a retired art professor from Chongqing city forcibly kissing two female students at a restaurant despite their protests were posted on China's Twitter-like Weibo.

Ms Sun says she considers herself lucky.

"One professor asked my classmate to go to his office, then tried to get her to agree to pose nude for a drawing," she says. "Compared to that, my experience wasn't as bad so I accepted it."

But experts say it is precisely this sort of attitude that allows sexual harassment to fester in universities.

Lawyer Lv Xiaoquan, deputy director of Beijing Zhongze Women's Legal Counselling and Service Centre, says a teacher's abuse of his authority is a distinct feature of sexual harassment in education.

"Students are afraid to come forward because of the control teachers have on whether they graduate or find a job. This creates a form of psychological control and so they don't resist," Mr Lv adds.

But it is hard to determine its prevalence in universities as authoritative figures are not available due to a low reporting rate and a lack of data on this sensitive issue. Schools have occasionally also been complicit in squashing such cases to protect their reputation, Mr Lv notes.

University of Hong Kong's associate professor of social work Edward Chan, who analyses sexual violence in Chinese societies, says victim-blaming, while evident even in the West, is particularly pronounced in China.

"There is an idea of bringing shame not only to the victim but also to her family. The victim might be blamed for seducing the teacher and she becomes the scapegoat instead, coming under huge social and psychological stress."

Furthermore, the lack of a unified definition of sexual harassment across Chinese courts also discourages many from coming forward, experts add. The forms of harassment can range from seeing objectionable graffiti and suggestive name-calling to physical assault.

Ms Gao Xiangyu, 26, a student at a Beijing university, says that while she has not experienced harassment, a professor who perpetually tries to spend time alone with a student and who initiates physical contact would be guilty of it.

"But whether to report the professor based on these acts is another matter because the rules are unclear. There's no point taking the risk of reporting him if the school won't take it seriously," she adds.

So while China has since 2007 implemented a sexual harassment law, which allows women to take perpetrators to court, it is seen by some as a "paper tiger". This is because it is seldom wielded and the burden of proof still lies with the victim.

But with the issue gaining resonance, more universities are looking at measures to prevent and combat sexual harassment on campus.

In October, the Education Ministry rolled out new guidelines to prevent sexual abuse on campus. These strictly prohibit teachers from coercing students into having sex, making specific note of sexual harassment.

But more can be done, say experts.

Concerns over the light punishment meted out to professors who did wrong in the past and the lack of channels for students to lodge complaints should be addressed.

Mr Lv suggests setting up committees made up of university staff and student representatives to raise awareness of the issue and give victims a place to turn to.

Schools should also adopt and make public policies that address sexual harassment specifically, Prof Chan said.

Often, universities take action only when cases involve violence or rape while less serious ones are simply swept under the carpet due to a lack of mechanisms to address them.

"But without specific rules, the school is actually institutionalising sexual harassment because the message you're sending is that the school's eyes are shut and students are on their own," he adds.

But while there is still a long way to go in ensuring that systemic changes are made to protect victims, experts say social media is playing a constructive role by drawing attention to the issue, putting pressure on schools and changing attitudes faster than before.

Ms Sun says: "Maybe professors will be more careful with their behaviour now and other students will be spared what we experienced."

Additional reporting by Lina Miao

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