The pressure to furnish proof, the fear of fighting a superior, the likely impact on career, and adverse publicity prevent women from reporting sexual harassment

An employee of Tehelka accuses Tarun Tejpal, founder and editor-in-chief of the weekly magazine, of sexually assaulting her during an event organised in Goa, and the police file a first information report. A law intern claims she was sexually harassed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court in 2012. A student of Jawaharlal Nehru University complains to the Director of the International Film Festival of India that a senior government official harassed her ahead of the festival. The three incidents have brought sharply to the fore the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace.

Sexual exploitation of women has existed for ages and cuts across societies, rich and poor. It is only in recent times that modern states have started taking harassment at the workplace seriously, putting in place laws that seek to provide a safer work environment for women.

In India, the Supreme Court recognised the need for a law when it laid down the Vishaka Guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace in 1997. Sixteen years later, Parliament enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

The law describes sexual harassment as unwelcome acts or behaviour (directly or by implication) which include physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; making sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

Complaints committee

The law stipulates that employers should, “by an order in writing,” constitute an Internal Complaints Committee, the Presiding Officer of which should be a senior woman employee; the committee should consist of at least two employees “committed to the cause of women” or have legal knowledge and experience in social work; and one member from an NGO or association committed to the cause of women or a “person familiar with the issues relating to sexual harassment.” At least one-half of the committee should consist of women. Section 6 of the law says Local Complaints Committees should be constituted in districts to receive complaints from women working in establishments that have fewer than 10 employees and cannot constitute an internal committee, or when the complaint is against the employer himself.

Thus, women working in both the organised and unorganised sectors are safer now at the workplace, at least on paper. Why, then, did the law intern not muster the courage to complain when she was allegedly harassed by a judge? Why do many women like her suffer in silence, most of them forever? Surely, for every case reported there must be hundreds of cases that go unreported. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

To answer the question, it is important to understand how society perceives a working woman. Women employed in the unorganised sector and single women are economically vulnerable. Many of them are not aware of the law. Their male colleagues and employers know that they cannot risk their livelihood. The plight of women employed in shops, supermarkets, private schools, hospitals, and as sales girls is no different. If and when the situation becomes intolerable, they leave their jobs. Those who cannot do so try to remove themselves from the situation by opting for a transfer, or learn to live with the harassment. Ironically, the threshold of tolerance increases with need and many women cope by suggesting to themselves that these are the ways of the world and they have no choice.

In rare instances when women do complain, they find support from co-workers hard to come by. Employers are not comfortable with a ‘difficult’ woman. They encourage her to leave as the perception that a man needs the job more than a woman is deep-rooted.

The belief that a man works to earn his livelihood whereas a woman does so to supplement the family income is widespread. Since a majority of workers in most corporate offices are men, they protect their turf zealously. Even if they know that a fellow worker’s behaviour towards his woman colleague is inappropriate, they hesitate to say so openly. They close ranks, isolating the woman.

In a society where a woman’s safety is her own responsibility — she has been ‘taught’ that she must dress modestly so that men are not ‘provoked’ and ‘ignore’ lewd comments — sexually coloured remarks or verbal sexual advances are hardly seen as acts of harassment. A woman who complains is accused of making a mountain out of a molehill. No surprise, then, that Mr. Tejpal alleged that his colleague had taken amiss a “drunken banter” — as though somehow it is all right for a man to misbehave when he is drunk.

Obviously, nothing has changed much since 1988 when an IAS officer took police officer K.P.S. Gill to court for misbehaving with her. Mr. Gill was convicted under Sections 354 (outraging the modesty of a woman) and 509 (word, gesture or act insulting a woman) of the IPC but his sentence was reduced to probation and a fine. The woman, on the other hand, was criticised by sections of the media for being in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

When a woman complains of sexual harassment, the first thing most employers do is to try and settle the issue amicably, by transferring out one of the employees or getting the man to apologise. The IFFI incident, in which the officer was moved back to Delhi after he tendered an “unconditional apology,” reinforces this. In most instances, it is difficult for women to prove the charges, which is the reason many do not go to the police and are “satisfied” with the decision of the Internal Committee.

According to the Act, it is the duty of the employer to help the woman if she chooses to file a complaint for an offence under the Indian Penal Code or any other law and “cause to initiate action under the law against the perpetrator.” Tehelka Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury’s argument that she had to respect the privacy of the victim is nothing but escapism typical of an employer who wants to avoid adverse publicity for her organisation.

Social stigma

The pressure to furnish proof, the fear of the consequences of fighting a superior, pressure from colleagues to “forgive,” uncertainty over future prospects in the office, possible impact of the move on their career (employers prefer not to hire women who have created ‘trouble’ in their previous jobs), and adverse publicity among colleagues prevent women from complaining. This perhaps explains why the law intern spoke up a year after she was harassed and is reluctant to press charges.

A common accusation against a victim of sexual harassment is that she consented to the alleged acts. Mr. Tejpal has claimed it was an “incredibly fleeting, consensual encounter of less than a minute.” The law clearly says that an implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in employment (“it is the easiest way to keep your job”), a threat of detrimental treatment or creating a hostile environment amount to sexual harassment.

The social stigma a woman faces when she complains of sexual harassment is immense. Suddenly, her attire, behaviour and interpersonal relationships come under the scanner. She becomes a topic of discussion both inside and outside office. The Tejpal episode has already become a talking point in drawing rooms. The victim undergoes immense trauma as she lives the harrowing experience every time TV panellists debate the ‘genuineness’ of the complaint, colleagues whisper behind her back and ‘well-wishers’ tell her she would have saved herself a lot of trouble had she kept quiet and left at the earliest opportunity.

Section 14 of the Act says the Internal Committee or the Local Committee can recommend punishment for a woman who makes a false or malicious complaint. It is very easy to accuse a woman belonging to the lower or middle income group of making false charges and get rid of her. Members on the Internal Committee are appointed by the employer and they are well aware of the culture that prevails in their office.

What is the way forward? As a first step, follow the law in letter and in spirit. Employers should display the provisions of the Act conspicuously; appoint an Internal Committee; conduct awareness programmes; treat sexual harassment as misconduct under their service rules and assist women who file a complaint. They should be alive to the reality that in an office where men and women work, sexual harassment is a possibility and put in place formal and informal mechanisms to deal with it.

mythili.s@thehindu.co.in

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