Addressing sexual and gender-based violence in south Asian institutions of higher education

In 2015-2016, the ACU is marking, in as many parts of the Commonwealth as possible, the 30th anniversary of the establishment of its Gender Programme, which supports the recruitment and retention of women in higher education leadership and management, and promotes gender equity as an integral institutional goal.  

For the first of these events, the ACU is working in collaboration with Eastern University, Sri Lanka, to hold a conference on the theme of 'Addressing sexual and gender-based violence in south Asian institutions of higher education'. The conference will take place from 9-10 July 2015 in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka. 

Registration is now closed. The Programme is available to download here [.pdf]

Objectives of the conference

  • To chart and showcase ways and means of addressing / redressing SGBV in South Asian universities and ending the cultures of impunity;
  • To provide an interdisciplinary forum on SGBV in higher education that can span the policy to the functional, the institutional to the individual, the theoretical to the material, and the broad-spectrum to the culture or context-specific; and
  • Actively to encourage south Asian universities to learn from one another (and/or from universities in other parts of the Commonwealth) in working towards the prevention of SGBV in universities through individual interventions, policy changes, institutional mechanisms, programmes and curriculum development.


The conference aims to bring together scholars and experts in the field of preventing SGBV from the perspectives of health, psychology and counselling; policy-making, the law; gender and women’s rights; university governance and administration; university design and spatial planning; human resource and community development; education, curricular change and training; who will aim concretely to map out action points to address and end impunity for SGBV.


Universities are part of the south Asian polities, and may, on occasion, even form a microcosm of each society as a whole. They constitute institutional communities that are open, in varying degrees, both to the expression of personal liberty as well as to organisational regulation. Consequently, the presence of SGBV within universities (often with impunity) needs to be addressed on a priority basis – not only in terms of safeguarding personal rights of students and ensuring justice for victims, but also in protecting universities as spaces of freedom, dynamic thinking and progressiveness. 

Moreover, universities not only constitute ‘workplaces’, but they are also institutions where students expand their subject knowledge, train for their professional careers, and mould their characters as individuals. Consequently, they can be identified as providing critical opportunities to be exploited in endeavours at preventing SGBV.

Introduction to the Conference theme

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) provides a definition of the term 'Gender-based Violence' to mean 'Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.'

Though gender-based violence affects people across cultures, women are the main targets of the act / practice and suffer a greater negative impact throughout their lifecycle (from early childhood marriage and genital mutilation, to sexual abuse, domestic violence, legal discrimination and exploitation). Thus gender-based violence is generally understood to arise primarily from the power inequalities in gendered identities and relations. Yet the term can also refer to any harm that is perpetrated against a person’s will. It can, therefore, include inter-gender and intra-gender sexual and gender based violence (involving men against boys, violence based on sexual orientation and cliterodectomies).

Sexual violence (SV), on the other hand, includes sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. It refers to any act, attempt, or threat of a sexual nature that results, or is likely to result in, physical, psychological and emotional harm. Sexual violence can also be seen as a form of gender-based violence. 

In south Asia, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is often an unacknowledged practice. Incidences are under-reported and perpetrators are under-penalised, despite penal codes and other laws that reinforce the gravity of its practices as criminal acts. Incidences of SGBV are diverse and can range from honour killings and kidnappings in Afghanistan and Pakistan; to rape, gang rape, murder and ragging in India and Sri Lanka; and to acid throwing in Bangladesh and Nepal.

Unlike other types of societal violence (state / ethnic / political etc.), SGBV is often shrouded in secrecy. This is possibly due to its location in unequal/inequitable gender and sexual relations that are based on power and the psychosocial consequences on victim-survivors. Societal and cultural attitudes towards SGBV tend to be ambiguous with violence condemned in general, yet sometimes condoned in patriarchal and gender-unequal discourses. Thus in some cultural contexts, so-called honour-killings, gang raping, ragging, etc., are accepted as social norms that cannot be changed. Attempts at redress, whether legal or otherwise, have been coloured by institutionalised ideological norms and biases that may influence, delay or divert possible means of reparation and justice. The above factors testify to the fact that SGBV is an extremely complex phenomenon, relating perhaps to the very psychological construction and expression of the identities of perpetrators and victim-survivors.

South Asian universities can be identified as spaces in which sexual harassment/ abuse takes place. Very often there is a large gap between the laws and their enactment. In recent times, however, there has been increased media reportage of SGBV as a social and interpersonal practice with wide-ranging consequences. The media has, more often than not, highlighted the legal impunity with which SGBV is being perpetrated.