Sealed lips, flawed attitudes worsen plight of working women

Sexual harassment at workplace a reality less acknowledged, say experts

Published - December 31, 2012 01:57 am IST - Mumbai:

Even as the country is outraged over the sad demise of the Delhi gang rape victim, we, as a society, are yet to acknowledge the demon of sexual harassment at workplaces, experts say.

Activists have demanded that the Parliamentarians, who are now crying hoarse demanding measures to ensure women’s safety, soon pass the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, which is pending with the Rajya Sabha since September.

Thirty-five-year-old Kalpana Savji (name changed to protect identity) joined a renowned multinational company as a human resource manager a few months ago only to be sexually harassed by her senior, who used to pass sexually overt and suggestive comments. She was dissuaded by the office to file a police complaint. She then registered a complaint with the company’s internal committee. Her services were terminated when she refused to take back the complaint and issue an apology. She is now fighting a legal battle in the industrial court and the High Court.

“The situation is horrible since there is no law the victim can take recourse to. In many instances even the sexual harassment committees don’t talk about these cases. There are no statistics available about the number of cases since the matter is left to the individual employer. Private companies do not provide any data,” Anagha Sarpotdar, who has been working on the issue since 1999, said.

Prestige issue

“For the corporates, the organisation’s image and prestige is associated with the issue. They do not look at it as breach of the woman’s fundamental right to work in a safe environment. Moreover, they may not have separate policies related to sexual assault or harassment of women,” she said.

“More often than not, it is a double whammy for the very few women who choose to complain. Not only is their right to free living violated, even their right to livelihood is denied,” Ms. Sarpotdar said.

“Women put up with it and ignore it. They fear a hostile work environment, getting a bad name in the organisation and being branded a troublemaker. In many cases, her services are terminated, or she is forced to take a transfer, or denied promotion. Although instructions have been issued to all organisations, multinational companies do not pay heed to the Supreme Court directions,” Shomita Biswas, Member-Secretary, Maharashtra State Women’s Commission, said.

“Ultimately, sexual harassment at workplaces happens because of attitudes that are an extension of what we experience in the community, family. There is gender insensitivity in our families. The workplaces are a reflection of that,” she said.

What SC says

The Supreme Court has defined sexual harassment at workplace as unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) [such] as physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. It has been accepted as a human rights violation and as a form of violence against women.

According to an opinion poll recently released by Oxfam India and Social and Rural Research Institute, 17 per cent of the working women claimed to have experienced sexual harassment at workplaces. Two years ago, in a first of its kind, a workplace sexual harassment survey, conducted by an NGO ‘Centre for Transforming India,’ reported a whopping 88 per cent women in the information technology and business process outsourcing and knowledge process outsourcing (BPO/KPO) companies having suffered some form of workplace sexual harassment.

An independent committee, appointed by the Maharashtra government to look into cases of sexual harassment at workplaces in government offices, handled over 100 cases in 2011-12. A committee of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai received six complaints of sexual harassment in 2011-12. Between April and November 2011 (the latest data available), the State Women’s Commission received 33 complaints of harassment. Of them, five pertained to sexual harassment.

“The data is not even the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, there is no compiled information about such cases. There is no published research in the field of sexual harassment. To add to it, women are hardly ready to talk about it,” Ms. Sarpotdar said.

“Wherever the complainant is ensured security that she will not be harassed further, we have seen that many other women join in and complain. Recently, a woman in a government office complained that she was being sent pornographic material. When others saw that her complaint was investigated seriously, many women joined in,” Puja Kuthe, a lawyer and activist with Majlis NGO, who has been working on several sexual harassment committees since the past four years, said.

The members of such committees, whom the correspondent approached, said they had never come across a case where a woman had registered a false complaint.

Activists lamented that in many cases, though the accused men are transferred to show some action has been taken against them, they are, in fact, transferred on promotion.

Recently, the Supreme Court, while writing the judgment in a petition filed by Medha Kotwal Lele seeking enforcement of Vishakha guidelines, made it mandatory for all the States, Union territories and regulatory bodies to set up a legal mechanism to implement these guidelines.

“There is still no proper mechanism in place to address complaints of sexual harassment of women lawyers in Bar Associations, lady doctors and nurses in the medical clinics and nursing homes, women architects working in the offices of the engineers and architects and so on and so forth,” the apex court observed.

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