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Solutions for harassment

Brazilian universities establish policies to fight mischief and sexual violence

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Recent cases of professors and researchers accused of sexual harassment rekindled the conversation about the role of universities in addressing this crime within the academic arena. While many Brazilian institutions lack specific policies and procedures to deal with this problem, some are investing in the development and implementation of initiatives to fight new cases on their campuses.

In 2017, the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) created a working group to consider the most effective policies to deal with violence and sexual harassment. “There was a perception that the university was not using adequate mechanisms to process reports and, as a result, was not taking this subject seriously,” says Ana Maria Fonseca de Almeida, from the Faculty of Education, who led the working group at that time.

The university hosted various discussions with students, professors, and employees, resulting in an institutional policy proposal founded on no tolerance for sexual harassment, the definition of a protocol for multidisciplinary handling of complaints and the processing of reports, and the development of programs to build awareness and provide education and training for the entire university community.

The document was submitted to the University board of directors in 2019 and was approved. One of the key measures was the creation of the Service for the Care of Sexual Violence (SAVS), which is responsible for mobilizing specialized sectors of UNICAMP and, depending on the needs of each case, offer direction and support to the victims. “Our policy did not require significant investment,” says Fonseca de Almeida. “We created a structure based on existing services connected to women’s health and to psychological and psychiatric care.” The idea is that SAVS centralizes the complaints and mobilizes these structures. “We seek to provide care, to guide, to present options, to offer accommodation and be the intermediary for available services,” explains the professor, pointing out that the investigation and judgment of the cases remains the responsibility of the university’s audit committees.

Since it was founded, the service has received 60 individual complaints. Not all turned into reports. “The victims feel fragile and at fault for what happened,” she says. “Many give up on the process for fear of it going public, impacting their work, studies, and research.” The strategy, according to Fonseca de Almeida, is to try to guarantee the victim total control over what is done. “The care we provide helps victims reflect on what happened and get stronger psychologically, leaving to them the decision of whether or not to make the report and when.” When this happens, SAVS gathers the evidence, builds the case, and sends it to the Chancellor’s office, which forwards it to the head prosecutor for evaluation and investigation. The majority of cases is still under investigation. They involve students, professors, researchers, and administrative employees. “Some have already resulted in warnings and unpaid suspensions,” adds Fonseca de Almeida.

São Paulo State University (UNESP) has also worked with strategies to address cases of sexual misconduct. The victims today are advised to make an official complaint with the ombudsperson on campus. “Many cases also come to us via academic centers formed by students,” explains Claudia Maria de Lima, ombudsperson at UNESP. “When we receive complaints, we contact victims to find out how we can help them, avoiding a situation where they need to retell their case and relive the experience.” As is the process at UNICAMP, the university connects the victims with the services suitable to their unique needs. Often a campus does not have the appropriate services—UNESP has 24 campuses throughout the state. “We seek to maintain dialogue with health institutions and local support groups to ensure the victims receive adequate support.”

When the victim opts to move forward with a report—and if the case took place on campus property—an audit committee assesses the case. To avoid the process threatening the victim’s university experience, UNESP, through the Committee for Violence Prevention, passed a resolution that offers the possibility of campus transfer, even if there is no space available—which is what was needed on the request of a rape victim. Lima explains that the audit committees are formed by three staff members, usually researchers studying gender-based violence and human rights. Many cases received by the ombudsperson come from frat house parties and involve only students. “Unfortunately, the most we can do in these cases is provide support, as the university does not have authority to investigate them, unless the case involves an employee or public servant.”

In recent years, UNESP has received 15 files, all involving sexual harassment. Two became formal reports and are still in the audit process. At the same time, the university works on other initiatives. There has been a working group on violence prevention since 2015 and, in December 2021, it established an Office for Affirmative Action, Diversity, and Equity, which promotes practices and policies against harassment, sexual violence, and gender-based violence at the institution. “We have organized debates to increase visibility of the subject and awareness among the academic community,” shares Leonardo Lemos de Souza, who heads the office at UNESP. “We also published a guide with advice about how to identify and deal with this problem, in addition to training ombudspersons who are the first point of contact for the victims.”

The initiatives at UNICAMP and UNESP compliment those at other institutions. Since 2016, the University of São Paulo (USP) has had the USP Women’s Office, which develops and implements initiatives that promote gender equality on its seven campuses. In 2020, in partnership with the Social Services Oversight Office, the office launched a service protocol for cases of violence and sexual harassment at the university, with advice on how to receive, support, and accompany victims through health and psychosocial services.

Today, victims of violence and sexual harassment at USP can take their cases to the ombudsperson or the human rights commissions. These bodies are responsible for collecting reports and forwarding them to the director responsible, who analyzes each case and initiates the investigation. This can result in an administrative proceeding against the aggressor. However, this path is not yet very effective. “The victim must make a complaint, testify in the investigation, then testify during the administrative proceedings, often in the presence of the aggressor,” clarifies sociologist Heloisa Buarque de Almeida, from the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at USP. “Many give up along the way. Others continue but abandon their studies.”

A majority of Brazilian universities lack the structures and policies to fight violence and sexual harassment

Buarque de Almeida is one of the coordinators of USP’s Rede Não Cala!, a movement of professors who demand more effective institutional policies against violence and sexual harassment. The network was formed in 2015, in response to a case of a student from the School of Medicine accused of drugging and raping at least six classmates. “The idea was to create a support group where women professors from different institutions make themselves available to listen to victims and guide them on next steps, taking advantage of institutional mechanisms we have available at the university,” she says. Through these experiences, the group developed a project proposing to establish a benchmark care center, make changes in the university statutes to improve the audits, and create a more accessible place to handle internal claims on each campus. “We delivered the project to the university in 2017, but nothing was done with it,” she notes. “We revisited the conversations with the current coordinator, who seems willing to try to implement these ideas.”

The gaps identified by Buarque de Almeida further prove the importance of support groups and women’s collectives. “They work on the investigation of group claims,” she says. This is one of the key mechanisms used by the victims to strengthen the complaints. In December 2021, this strategy resulted in the firing of industrial chemical engineer Cláudio Lima de Aguiar, from the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture (ESALQ) at USP. In 2019, eight graduate students and another five witnesses who knew the researcher accused him of moral and sexual harassment. USP initiated an administrative proceeding with Aguiar who, in March 2020, was forced to leave the institution after the academic community signed a petition. In December 2021, then Chancellor Vahan Agopyan signed for his discharge.

The Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) is also moving in this direction. “We have a long history of projects for teaching, research, and virtual learning related to gender in science, but discussions about violence and sexual harassment have not yet reached an institutional level,” notes physicist Daniela Borges Pavani, from the Institute of Physics at UFRGS. In her opinion, this started to change in 2017, when the institution joined the committee from Rio Grande do Sul that sparked the HeForShe movement, created by the United Nations (UN) to stimulate discussions around strategies and actions to promote gender equality in society.

Pavani chairs the committee at UFRGS and shares that one of her first tasks was to study the perception of moral and sexual harassment at the university. The survey heard from a little more than 6,000 people, men and women, and verified that 10.4% of professors, 13.4% of administrative staff, and 11.8% of students had already been victims of sexual harassment at the university. The majority of victims were women. “Many did not submit reports as they did not have proof or sufficient witnesses,” she says.

The results of this study provided a base for a meeting, held at the beginning of 2020 with various sectors of the university, during which discussions were held about measures for dealing with the problem, such as the creation of a permanent working group with the purpose of developing protocols and actions against violence and sexual harassment at the university, the establishment of a space to provide support and receive reports—the primary channel available today at the university is the ombudsperson—the development of a guide for best practices, workshops, and required courses on the subject for professors, students, and administrative staff who are new to the university, in addition to carrying out periodic studies on sexual misconduct.” With the pandemic, however, UFRGS suspended all institutional efforts to move these strategies forward,” says Pavani. The discussions began again in 2021. “Recently, we sent a standard resolution proposal for the prevention and handling of harassment to the University board.”

In 2016, through its Center for Women’s Studies and Research (NEPEM), the University of Brasília (UnB) held, in collaboration with the Public Ministry of the Federal District (MP-DF), a public hearing with representatives of various teaching and research institutions in the region to debate how to address this problem within the university setting. “We reserved a room for the MP-DF to collect new reports,” says sociologist Tânia Mara Campos de Almeida, from the Department of Sociology at UnB and one of the members of NEPEM. Furthermore, the entity made a series of recommendations to the Chancellor’s office, which began working to strengthen the Women’s Office, “which today offers psychosocial support to victims and connects them with relevant services, in addition to working with the ombudsperson’s office at UnB and members of the judiciary to improve strategies to deal with violence and harassment at the institution.”

The specialists interviewed for the report agree that these initiatives are important, but they note that they are still focused on few institutions and there has not yet been time to prove their effectiveness. “The majority of Brazilian universities don’t have the necessary structures or policies to deal with this problem,” shares Buarque de Almeida. “In most cases, the maximum they do is organize awareness campaigns with posters and brochures distributed on campus.”

The Federal University of ABC (UFABC) is trying to take this a step further. It recently created a working group with students, professors, and administrative staff to debate policies against violence and sexual harassment. “We have developed a resolution with various measures, and we will submit it shortly to the University board,” says Acácio Santos, vice chancellor of Community Issues and Affirmative Policies at UFABC, whose ombudsperson reported receiving six reports in the last three years, all of which are in process.

One of key problems resulting from the lack of policies and adequate streams for processing complaints is the scarcity of data related to the occurrence of this problem in these institutions. In 2015, a survey carried out by the Avon Institute with 1,823 undergraduate and graduate students in Brazil shed some light on this: 56% of women reported having been sexually harrassed at the university. “It should be noted that this problem is very underreported,” notes Fonseca de Almeida, at UNICAMP.

The reasons for this are varied but, for the most part, they are related to the vulnerability of the victims in relation to their aggressors and to the institutions’ lack of confidence to deal with reports. “The victims are afraid of the implications a claim can have on their career, so they prefer to stay silent,” notes Buarque de Almeida. This problem is not exclusive to Brazil. In the United Kingdom, one in 10 employees at colleges and universities have reported being the victim of violence or sexual harassment in the last five years, according to a study by the union of postsecondary professors in the UK, involving nearly 4,000 employees. More than half (52%) did not submit a complaint.

In an attempt to address this problem, in the United States and Canada, the 66 member institutions of the Association of American Universities (AAU) have adopted eight principles (see table on page 42) to prevent violence and sexual harassment in the academic setting. One of them is the sharing of data from cases of sexual misconduct involving professors and researchers when solicited by other employing institutions. The idea is to ensure that cases not be closed when the accused leaves their current institution, but rather have the details registered in records that can be shared between universities when an accused person is being considered for a position elsewhere. “The fight against violence and sexual harassment in society as a whole and in the university setting, in particular, must continue and, the more channels an institution can access, the more victims will feel comfortable to make claims,” states Lima from UNESP.

Paths to prevention
Group of Canadian and North American institutions adopts set of rules to fight sexual misconduct on their campuses

• Promote a culture of nontolerance for sexual misconduct and implement support policies for the creation of an environment of learning, life, and work that are free of harassment in the academic community
• Educate campus communities about institutional values, policies, and expectations for individual behavior, such as reporting sexual misconduct and supporting victims of this
• Provide support to those who submit reports of sexual misconduct, confirming that there are resources for groups who suffer from harassment on a frequent basis
• Handle claims according to institutional policies and in a respectful, ethical, appropriate, and timely manner
• Hold students, professors, employees, and administrative staff accountable, in a just and equitable manner, for such violations
• During the hiring process, request or require that candidates provide consent in writing for the possible release of personal information from their previous employer about sexual misconduct
• Share key discoveries of sexual misconduct with other possible employers, in the case this is requested
• To the extent possible, conclude all investigations of sexual misconduct, even if the accused leaves the institution