The Sherubtse Harassment Case is not just about one educational institution, but it is the story of a culture of sexual harassment in educational institutions, and how even when victims gather the courage to complain, the issue is either buried or the perpetrators are often let off lightly.
It is also the story of the gross misuse of powers by lecturers or teachers over their students whose academic, and even professional future, depends on their marks.
In June 2021, 10 female students, from the same class in their Third Year, lodged an official complaint against an Assistant Lecturer Dorji Phuntsho, for harassment and not being fair with his marks.
The complaints ranged from body shaming to unprofessional conduct in class to asking his female students to come on car rides with him late at night. The girls submitted evidence, like screenshots of chats on their mobile phones, and also stood witness to his other actions.
The college management set up a committee, and only awarded withholding the promotion of the assistant lecturer by three years, which was equivalent to a non-punishment or a just a slap on the wrist.
The 10 girls were not happy with the outcome that favored the assistant lecturer.
In the words of the College President Tshering Wangdi, two other media houses had come to enquire about the case, but they did not cover any story after he explained to them that there was no sexual harassment, like ‘touching or molesting or asking for sexual favour.’
With reference to asking car rides to girls, the President said the lecturer had meant a group ride. On the body shaming part, the President said the lecturer was trying to encourage the student to lose weight. On the marks being different, he said they checked and found only minor differences.
However, this paper was not convinced and asked with the President to speak to the girls, and to the credit of the President, he shared the contact information of the girls.
A very different picture emerged when the paper talked to the college girls in question, and reviewed the same evidences submitted by them to the management committee.
The first victim suffered from panic attacks and started missing classes after the lecturer messaged her asking for late night rides with him, and made other inappropriate comments.
The second victim started having suicidal thoughts and also missing classes after the lecturer also pursued her relentlessly, repeatedly asking her for late night solo rides despite her saying no several times to the rides. He also made inappropriate comments to her, and also about other female students and his wife, and like in the first case, the harassment continued indirectly in class.
When his attempts to get the student to come with him on late night rides was not working, he also threatened her with a message saying he is a ‘sensitive person’ and gets ‘very disturbed when somebody ignores him’.
The third victim was made fun of by the assistant lecturer with other students by branding her as a feminist, and she felt she targeted for pointing out an inconsistent statement he made, and she got low marks in July in the subject. She said she heard that he also messages students from First Year at odd hours, but they are not willing to come forward as they have two more years to go.
The fourth girl said that in her case, the main issue was body shaming, right from the First Year the assistant lecturer made fun of her size, and made it a running joke in the class all the way to the Third Year. She even protested it, but he not only continued doing it, but she feels he also held it against her and targeted her.
She said that despite her size, she used to be very confident even danced on stage before, but now, she has lost her confidence. She said that in her experience, the assistant lecturer was not even reliable during the online classes last year.
The girls said they had to voice and expose the crime, not only for their own safety and well being, but more so for the safety and well being for the other female students in the future.
Assistant Lecturer Dorji Phuntsho denied he is involved in any harassment case and said that whatever the College President has said is true.
After the paper published news of the harassment complaint of 10 Sherubtse girls against the Assistant Lecturer Dorji Phuntsho, two girls from two other institutions came forward.
A former student of College of Institution of Language and Culture Studies (ILCS), Yeshi Choki, said the same assistant lecturer started teaching her class in ILCS from 2016 onwards. He also started sending her personalized messages, and since at the time he did not have a car he asked her out for late night midnight walks with him, which she declined.
He confessed to liking her and Yeshi put a stop to it by directly telling him that they are teacher and student, and if he cannot keep that responsibility then she would do so.
Yeshi said that she soon suffered the consequences, as though she was always pretty good in her studies, she got the third lowest Internal Assessment marks and did not do well in his module.
Yeshi said he would talk inappropriately with students at ILCS. The professor in one chat with Yeshi even admitted to dating one of his students in ILCS and even kissing that student. Yeshi alleged that those students who were close to him would do very well in exams.
There was a post by a person who was a high school student in 2014 in a Yozerling Higher Secondary school in Paro making allegations too.
The assistant lecturer Dorji Phuntsho responded to the above allegations denying all of the above.
During the course of the investigation, this paper found that there have been two earlier sexual harassment cases, where two lecturers had been terminated showing the latest case may not be an isolated incident in improper interaction between lecturers and students at Sherubtse.
Around February 2021, a Sherubtse female student had brought forth a sexual harassment complaint against another lecturer from India named Mr. Jha who taught computer science, and he was let go.
Before Mr. Jha, Sherubtse terminated the services of a lecturer called Sonam Phuntsho, eight years ago, after there was serious evidence of sexual misconduct, according to the college. The incident happened during a field excursion. This case had not been forwarded to the police.
Meanwhile, many of the 10 students came under pressure from fellow students in Sherubtse and also their own parents to hush up the matter, and not proceed with the complaint.
The Royal University of Bhutan (RUB), in response to the stories by the paper, sent its own team to Sherubtse, and after an investigation, suspended the assistant lecturer and handed over his case to the Trashigang RBP in November 2021.
The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) in Trashigang completed its investigation in the Sherubtse harassment case and on 28 December 2021, and charge sheeted the case to the court under section 205 of Penal Code of Bhutan for 10 counts of sexual harassment, under section 462 for five counts of harassment.
RBP went by the same evidence and statements that the paper collected and reviewed from the students.