A recent scandal at the Kyiv National University has spotlighted the pervasive issue of sexual harassment in Ukrainian universities and sparked a debate that academic institutions have to adopt new policies to fight it, especially amid a new law that made sexual harassment a crime.
Several female students at the Institute of Biology and Medicine of the Kyiv National University accused one of their professors of sexual harassment. The professor refused to speak to the media, but denied the allegations in a statement, saying the students had bullied him to gain popularity. Other students spoke positively of him.
After weeks of reviewing the complaints and evidence, a special commission convened at the university found the professor’s behavior unethical and recommended the rector and academic board to consider whether he can continue teaching.
Video by Irynka Hromotska. The video was produced as a part of the Journalist Exchange Program by Media Development Foundation with the support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Content is independent of the donor.
One of the complainants, second-year student Klementyna Kvindt, said she had witnessed her professor of plant biology, Petro Romanenko, behaving inappropriately for the classroom on multiple occasions.
She said the harassment often involved the invasion of personal space of female students: Romanenko would sit on their desks, touch them or press his body against their bodies when he was showing them how to use a microscope. She said Romanenko’s behavior had been an open secret at university, but it was never taken seriously.
“Perhaps some people found his lewd jokes funny. I didn’t,” she told the Kyiv Post.
Drawing on her own experiences with Romanenko, 17-year-old Kvindt recollected her fieldwork practice last summer at the national park in Kaniv, a town 100 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, where biology students spend four weeks in summer studying plants.
“It was Friday, the night before an exam, at 10 o’clock in the evening, lights out,” she said. “Romanenko burst in our (girls-only) room. All of us were in our nightgowns. The professor was dead drunk. He turned to me and said that I would definitely pass the exam because I was so beautiful. Then he showed us ‘on fingers’ how to do cunnilingus. He was removed from our room by another instructor,” she said.
Two other students said in an interview to Hromadske that Romanenko had groped students’ breasts and buttocks.
In late January, Kvindt and another student filed a complaint against Romanenko with the university administration. Two more students corroborated the claims, saying they also observed the professor’s behavior, according to the Vice-Rector Volodymyr Bugrov. They demanded Romanenko be fired from the university.
The scandal has divided students of the institute into two camps: those who supported the victims and those who sided with the professor.
A number of graduates of the Institute of Biology and Medicine expressed solidarity with Kvindt on social media. Some did so by sharing their own stories of unwelcome sexual advances from Romanenko that they had experienced in the past. Others said that although they had not been harassed by the professor, the rumors were going around, and older students warned younger ones about him.
Romanenko, a 48-year-old professor of plant biology, has taught at the Kyiv National University since 2003. After his second-year students accused him of sexual harassment, his health reportedly deteriorated, and he has been on a sick leave since then.
However, many students speak positively of him. He knew his subject, could get on well with students and was friendly. Many can’t believe he would be capable of preying on young women.
He declined interview requests through his wife. But in a statement sent to university management on Feb. 6, he denied the accusations and claimed that Kvindt with a group of her friends had “decided to destroy him by bullying.” He said Kvindt’s goal was to boost her popularity on social media and gain influence over the teaching staff and university management through blackmail, intimidation, and spreading lies.
According to deputy director of the Institute of Biology and Medicine Taras Kompanets, Romanenko intends to sue Kvindt for defamation of character.
Kvindt, however, said she has been ostracized by fellow students and bullied on social media ever since she made the allegations public. On the internet, she was called “an attention seeker,” “slanderer,” “a person who doesn’t get jokes,” and “too sensitive.”
Some users commented that Romanenko had his peculiarities, but was not sexually violent.
Deputy director Kompanets also questioned whether jokes, even those that may be perceived inappropriate for the classroom, counted as sexual harassment.
“Biology has a lot of Latin terms. Some words may seem funny and even indecent. Many botany instructors, not only Romanenko, make jokes about it so that students memorize Latin better,” he said in an interview with the Kyiv Post.
However, a special commission convened by Kyiv National University management found Romanenko’s behavior to be unethical. The commission recommended the rector to take disciplinary measures against the professor, which, according to the law, could range from an official reprimand to dismissal.
According to the 2005 law of Ukraine on equal rights and opportunities for men and women, sexual harassment is defined as any act of a sexual nature expressed verbally (threats, obscene remarks) or physically (touching, patting), which humiliates or offends people in subordination.
Coming into force in January, a new law on sexual violence has been extended to include sexual harassment and separate its definition from rape.
Now, any forced act of a sexual character without penetration into a victim’s body or without a victim’s consent is a crime punishable by 3 to 15 years in prison. This includes sexual harassment, such as indecent compliments or touching, coercion to watch porn, and offers to have sex.
The law is not retroactive, so its impact is yet to be seen.
Deputy director of the Institute of Biology and Medicine Kompanets said that the Romanenko scandal had been bad for the reputation of the school, but had taught them a lesson for the future. The institute plans to include a special course on the issue in the orientation week package for freshmen.
“We talked about the need to elaborate recommendations for all faculty members how to carry oneself with students in relation to the new law. What was considered normal behavior before could be interpreted completely differently today,” he told the Kyiv Post.
Kyiv Mohyla Academy at the end of last year became the first Ukrainian university to adopt a new policy of preventing and combating sexual harassment, sexism, and gender discrimination. In January, the university set up a special committee to enforce the new policy.
The decision came in response to female students’ protests held at the university in summer 2017 against derogatory comments made by one of their professors on Facebook.
Tamara Martsenyuk, a professor of sociology at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy and expert on gender issues who is on the committee, says that their primary task is to train the administration and faculty on the new policy, and explain to them what constitutes sexual harassment and sexism. Sexist jokes are still common in the workplace and at universities, and sometimes instructors invite students to meet outside of the campus, she said.
According to Martsenyuk, Ukrainians still fail to perceive the difference between sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
“There’s high tolerance of sexual harassment in Ukrainian society. Many think it has to involve physical violence, not psychological (to be a crime),” she told the Kyiv Post.
At the same time, sexual misconduct of professors is a taboo topic. Students are reluctant to report it, for fear of retaliation, which may affect their grades, and university administrations tend to silence conflicts if students file complaints, to avoid bad publicity.
Not surprisingly, a number of women spoke up about having been sexually harassed in school or university during the “I’m not afraid to say” campaign, which went viral on social media in Ukraine in summer 2016, over a year before #metoo movement started in the West.
Lawyer Khrystyna Kit, head of the association of female lawyers JurFem, says reporting sexual harassment or assault to the police isn’t enough – the victim has to prove it, which is extremely hard to do without witnesses.
Unfortunately, in Ukraine, even evidence and witness testimonies can’t guarantee that offenders get their lawful punishment.
In November 2017, then 70-year-old head of the choreography department at Rivne State Humanities University, Volodymyr Hodovsky, was filmed by a hidden camera sexually harassing a female student, whom he offered “protection and favors” in exchange for sex. A dozen other former and current students also accused him of sexual harassment, and one former instructor filed a report to police claiming he told her to sleep with him if she wanted to keep her job.
Hodovsky resigned from the university, but the criminal investigation against him has not been completed.
None of the experts could recall successful cases of victims taking sexual harassment cases to court and winning. They agree that at the end of the day, it’s the matter of cultural attitudes towards sexual harassment which have to change.
Coming forward with allegations also requires a lot of courage, and not everyone can stand the public pressure, they said.
Biology student Kvindt, who was the first to speak up about sexual harassment against Professor Romanenko, said she has had to take a break from her studies while fighting for the professor’s dismissal.
“I don’t want other girls to be hurt by men who have power over them, who think they can do anything and nobody will find out,” Kvindt said. “It’s not about me. It’s about all of the girls who were sexually harassed in university.”
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