Sexual harassment in India: Should we have blind faith in the law?

Sexual harassment in India: Should we have blind faith in the law?

“I left my job because my boss was harassing me,” a friend of mine once told me, “I couldn’t take it. There wasn’t anything I could do.” When I first moved to the city, stories like this shocked me. It was only years after that I learnt the simple rules that women followed in leading corporate offices: ignore it in any way you can, and if you cannot, leave.

The complexity of what constitutes sexual harassment has been debated intensely in the Indian media the past year. In specific, two major cases highlighted the lack of policies to deal with sexual harassment at the Indian workplace. Almost two decades after the Supreme Court formally laid down the “Vishaka guidelines”, a series of measures that establishments should adopt to curb harassment, several organisations and corporate houses across the country continue to ignore it. The Tehelka case grabbed national headlines after a young reporter who worked in Tehelka, a well-known investigative magazine, alleged in an internal email that the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, Tarun Tejpal, sexually assaulted her. When asked why the guidelines weren’t immediately observed when the reporter complained of sexual harassment, the (former) Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury stated that “My understanding is she wanted an apology and it was given to her. He (Tejpal) stepped down. It was something she had not asked for. It was much more than what she wanted.” In a similar incident, an intern accused the former Chairman for the West Bengal Human Rights Commission and former Supreme Court judge, AK Ganguly, of sexual harassment. Details revealed that there was also no policy in place at her university for students to report sexual harassment. This comes as no surprise; several high-profile incidents that involved powerful people such as David Davidar, Phaneesh Murthy, Anand Jon and KPS Gill, stand testimony to the fact that in India, sexual harassment still remains a complex issue that is not discussed.

One of the main reasons that the issue of harassment is not taken seriously is that sexual violence against women and harassment isn’t entirely seen as a crime in India. Watch an Indian movie (any language of your choice) and the storyline will usually involve a young man in love going to great lengths to get a girl who refuses to accept him. In splashes of colour and song, everything from stalking, pinching, teasing and groping is passed off as a hero’s gesture of love and affection. In the mainstream media, politicians and god men often make sexist arguments, blaming women for the causes of crimes. Remember Asaram Bapu? That well-known self-styled god man who stated to the media that the Delhi gangrape victim could’ve avoided rape if “she should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop….” Remember that judge? who in a sessions court suggested that “wife-beating is a normal facet of married life”. Even Tarun Tejpal, a man who wrote at length about women’s rights, eventually pointed fingers at the reporter calling her a “modern, emancipated woman.” These instances are one too many.

Of course, it’s no surprise that this attitude manifests itself in the workplace as well. But people seem to have missed out two important questions that have emerged from the flood of anger directed at each of these individuals. One; will policy measures alone be effective in curbing harassment at work? Two; is there a way to encourage a healthy work relationship between men and women?

Late last December, fifteen years after drafting the “Vishaka guidelines”, the Supreme Court swiftly passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, which makes it mandatory for all offices with ten or more employees to have an internal complaints committee to address grievances. But this has only distanced more employers from their female workforce. The fear that female employees may use this to file for defamation hastily has already led to the management of several leading companies taking stricter measures. A few companies have also introduced workshops to encourage people to start working together to identify and report harassment. Kalpana Tatavarti, Managing Partner at Interweave, a Bangalore-based consultancy is positive. “In the corporate context, leering, innuendos or off-color jokes are the main issues. But they are still not seen as harassment. So we help employees and managers understand the nuances and realize when someone is crossing a line.” She admits. Other companies like IBM and The PRactice have also adopted gender sensitive programs for employees.

However, the act itself doesn’t throw light on how it seeks to include a large part of women in the unorganised sector; those who are employed in government positions, manual labour, contractual work or agricultural labour. These women continue to be exploited the most as their means to file charges against any injustice is minimal and they have little access to money, power or legal aid. Similarly, the act hasn’t made clear its position on including women in the armed forces. In rural agricultural belts, where caste politics reigns supreme, women who work on land often face serious physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Women from backward regions who belong to migrant or artisan communities also face immense social pressures both from their families and the local police when they wish to seek justice and complain against their employers. So will a single act be instrumental in curbing harassment? It’s unlikely. However, it will be interesting to see how this law can be implemented as there is a pressing need for women to access these basic rights. The key challenge isn’t just to put together a framework within which existing laws can be exercised. The challenge lies in helping millions of men and women in India identify appropriate behaviours and most importantly, ensuring that they play an active role in making their work environments safe.

Meera Vijayann is a writer and blogger who focuses on gender rights and social issues in India. Her writing has been published by The Guardian, CNN, Open Democracy and Forbes among other publications.

Photo courtesy: awesomewomenmag

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