UCAB’s Zero Tolerance Policy for Abuse

The Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB) has become the first private Venezuelan university to create a protocol for sexual abuse prevention and gender or sexual identity discrimination—and it's tending also to harassment complaints

Clear guidelines are here to finally stop abuse.

Photo: UCAB

Victories are rare in a nation with a broken justice system, and the stories that many media outlets ignore have found their way into social media, generating powerful campaigns capable of achieving the unthinkable: enforcing (and even updating!) the law. This is how the Protocolo y Actuación en Casos de Acoso y Violencia Sexual de la Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (Protocol and Action in Cases of Sexual Abuse and Violence of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello), was born and later approved on August, 11th, 2020, by the institution’s University Council.

During the first week of April 2020, a former UCAB student from the Guayana branch, in Bolívar State, posted on her Twitter account a story of harassment by a professor when she was a student. Venezuelan feminist groups, as well as others sharing or sympathizing with her story, started a campaign in support of the victim in which they raised their voice against sexual harassment in Venezuelan universities: #UniSinAcoso.

“From this campaign, a poll was released to find more complaints and to better understand the magnitude of the problem with numbers, alongside a letter stating the needs and requirements that we consider fundamental to acknowledge and fight the problem at hand, and put pressure on the proper authorities.” says Jhessimar Brito, one of the general coordinators of FEM UNI (a feminist network created across universities to articulate human rights focused on gender on campus). 

Thanks to the protest going viral, it reached the Extension Council of UCAB Guayana, where they decided to take action.

The protocol consists of seven chapters. Anyone who holds a director indirectrelationship with the university is subject to regulation, including professors, students, employees, and outsourced workers. The accompaniment and privacy of victims, without distinction of gender, is promoted, and the protocol provides legal and psychological support, including protection clauses based on sexual orientation and identity, while forbidding questioning the story told by the victim or blaming them for the event reported. It also contains prevention plans and training for faculty members, administration staff, and the student body in both of the university’s branches, along with the timeframes in which the Disciplinary Commission is obligated to take action.

Among what the protocol considers infractions, there’s hostile comments, spreading private images or information and unequal treatment based on gender or sexual orientation. Also, revealing a person’s sexual preference without their consent, non-consensual sexual acts, lewd language, unwanted physical advances, and obstructing reports by the victim or a third person are all forbidden. The sanctions, depending on the clause, go from a written warning to getting expelled or fired, and people not involved in the case can also come forward and file the complaint before the commission.

Anyone who holds a director indirectrelationship with the university is subject to regulation.

“At first, we did a balance on the information we had on universities trusted to the Society of Jesus in Latin America, which belonged to the Red AUSJAL (Association of Universities Trusted to the Society of Jesus in Latin America), basically cases in Mexico, Chile, and Ecuador”, professor Magaly Vásquez González says, UCAB’s executive secretary and coordinator of the commission appointed by the University Council, which put the protocol together. “We then made it extensive to other universities in the region, like the case in Colombia and then in Europe, where the Barcelona University in Spain stands out, allowing us to prepare a first layout of the content that the UCAB protocol was to have, after reviewing over twelve different protocols and similar instruments.”

The idea was for it to not just cover prevention, but also to deal with cases of sexual harassment and violence, “since we already had the mechanisms for punishment in the institution, and it had to be steered to not only students and professors, but also to administration staff and even third-party employees that were linked to the university.” This commission brought together professors and students from both branches of the university, and was advised by different professionals with experience in the subject in order to broaden the perspective.

According to data by Distintas Latitudes, only 40% of universities in Latin America have protocols in place against sexual harassment and abuse. Although many times said protocols aren’t executed or are incomplete, it marks a considerable difference in the advance on human rights in their institutions. In Venezuela, no public or private education center counted with a protocol of this kind until the one approved by UCAB. “We’ve heard of other universities, such as Universidad Metropolitana (a private institution in Caracas), that are looking into the recently published protocol by UCAB, which we hope will serve as an example and inspiration. We intend to keep an open eye for each advancement proposed to create safer spaces for women and all the university communities in the country,” Brito asserts.

There are no numbers showing the real amount of victims of harassment and abuse in Venezuelan universities, but it is a well-known situation in the hallways. Since the beginning of the #UniSinAcoso campaign, at least 62 students have filled the anonymous complaint form given out by feminist organizations and activists, mostly students from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, which lacks action plans for cases like these and often times reach the Centro de Estudios de la Mujer (Center for Women’s Studies) without major results. Tens of people have also shared their testimony on social media during the digital call by the activist groups, thus helping with data collection to draw out a more precise map of this reality.

According to data by Distintas Latitudes, only 40% of universities in Latin America have protocols in place against sexual harassment and abuse.

“It’s very difficult to properly describe what the situation of harassment in Venezuelan universities is, since it’s a topic commonly ignored,” Professor Vázquez claims. “Even though you might know for sure that these types of events do occur, very few times the victim dares to come forward. And sometimes, when she does file a complaint, investigations don’t go anywhere either because it’s difficult to prove or because the survivor is victimized all over again. The approval of similar instruments to the one prepared by UCAB, while on its own isn’t enough to put the brakes on the problem, offers the victim some confidence to encourage them to come forward. At the same time, it also serves as a deterrent to would-be offenders, in light of the consequences their actions could have. The approval of this protocol takes into effect the policy of zero tolerance.”

The protocol, which will take effect on September 15th, 2020 and considers infractions to up to three years in duration, will be broadcast by all university instances and will be re-evaluated every six months.

“This first execution period will greatly depend on the political will of the authorities to not lose track of each detail, which will undoubtedly have repercussions in how protocols will be applied in other education facilities in Venezuela, which have ignored this problem for many years, inhibiting even more the scarce, but brave, reports filed,” Brito points out. “We can only recognize the power of organized support between movements, collectives, organizations, independent activists, all working together.” She asserts that their work doesn’t end with protocols and training, and that it’s necessary to keep the focus on the requirements that were mentioned in the letter during the initial campaign: the encouragement of sexual harassment investigations at universities, and the promotion of associations, workshops, and leadership university groups with a gender based viewpoint.