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October 27, 2019 - Comments Off on Hearing at the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights regarding Privacy and Harassment

Hearing at the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights regarding Privacy and Harassment

On 25 October 2019, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), along with members of civil society and student activists, got a chance to brief the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights’ session on the issue of the University of Balochistan in light of privacy, surveillance of campuses and harassment in educational institutes. Along with the acting Vice-Chancellor of the University, student representatives were given a chance to put forward their demands. The Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) Khawar Mumtaz, academic & activist Arfana Mallah and Shmyla Khan from DRF gave their recommendations to the Committee.

The facts presented in front of the Committee stated that 92 surveillance cameras had been installed by the university, however, in light of an investigation ordered by the Balochistan High Court, a total of eight unauthorized cameras were found. These cameras were used to record footage of students without their consent and resulted in blackmailing of students at the hands of the administration. The Senators expressed shock and called for accountability of the senior administration of the university, particularly the VC Dr. Iqbal Javed who stepped down after the incident gained national prominence. It was also revealed the University has no harassment committee as per the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act and the HEC’s Policy Guidelines against Sexual Harassment in Institutions of Higher Learning.

The two student representatives from Quetta highlighted that campuses in Balochistan are highly militarized and controlled spaces. There exists an atmosphere of fear that allows for incidents such as these to remain unreported for years. They demanded that there should be accountability for all involved, to prevent scapegoating of a few individuals instead of addressing the systemic information. They demanded that there should be a ban all arms and ammunition inside university campuses and surveillance cameras should be restricted to the outer gates of campuses. They also stated that a committee for harassment should be set up immediately and given adequate independence and powers. According to the Balochistan Ombudsperson on Workplace Harassment, only one university in the province has a harassment committee in place. The students asked that the ban on student unions should be lifted to allow for organizing on campuses.

Arfana Mallah stated that this issue not confined to one campus or part of the country. There is dearth of women in places of higher education, with women constituting only 20% of the student population and faculty in universities. She demanded that gender audits of educational institutes should be conducted and gender parity should be taken into account when university rankings are conducted. Arfana explained that the CCTV cameras installed under the 2007 HEC directive has resulted in moral policing of students as the camera ends up replicating a patriarchal gaze.

Shmyla from DRF pointed out the need for the protection of the Constitutional right to privacy through a comprehensive personal data protection legislation that shifts the balance of power between the user and data controllers. DRF recommended that cameras from campuses should be removed until HEC develops strong regulation and SOPs for cameras and the data collected. In order to ensure that campuses become critical spaces, it is important to strengthen harassment committees and to closely monitor their progress.

Several senators expressed shock at the state of affairs at universities. Senator Ayesha Raza termed the actions of the university admin as criminal negligence. She also iterated the need for gender parity on committees tasked with addressing harassment. Senator Saif noted that consent-based surveillance should be implemented and stressed the importance of regulation of citizen’s data collected by both private and public bodies.

The Chairperson of the Committee, Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, decided that a two-pronged approach will be tacked in address the matter. Firstly, in the short term, the Committee will closely monitor the investigation of the incident and the next meeting of the Committee will be held inside the University of Balochistan campus. He also noted that the deployment of security forces at campuses should be reviewed across the country. In the long term approach, HEC will be directed to develop a policy framework to ensure fundamental rights at educational institutions. He recommended that gender rankings be made part of annual rankings issued by the HEC. The Chairperson echoed the demand for restoration of student unions. He also highlighted the urgent need for a data protection law in Pakistan. Senator Khokhar promised that the committee will continue to monitor the FIA proceedings into the privacy violations at the University of Balochistan.

We commend the committee for taking up the issue and framing it as an issue of privacy violations and harassment of female bodies. We hope that they will continue to follow up on these promises. 

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Press Releases

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