The Vishakha guidelines for preventing sexual harassment at the workplace was given by the Supreme Court in 1997 as a reaction to the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a government worker.
In no other crime does the inherent ‘character’ and life history of the involved person come in as it does in the case of any sexual attack. One refreshing aspect in the current case in Goa is that the dissection is of the accused rather than the complainant.
Invariably, the inherent gendered social structure blames the molested rather than the perpetrator. Did she go out with him in the first place? Her age, her marital status. Was she, by any chance, drinking? What clothes was she wearing? Why did she go to a place where she was alone with him?
There is a deep need to ensure that women are not sexually harassed at the workplace. But before that is the need to strengthen reporting mechanisms and deliver fair and swift punishment to the perpetrators – this is the only thing that could possibly bring down the number of cases.
The Vishakha guidelines for preventing sexual harassment at the workplace was given by the Supreme Court in 1997 as a reaction to the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a government worker. She was a ‘sathin’ who tried to prevent a child marriage in her village in Rajasthan, as part of her official duties. She was raped by members of the accused family while her husband was brutally beaten. The actions of police officers, medical staff and the judiciary led to the accused being released; in fact they were actually facilitated in a public function by political parties after the final judgement in their favour. This formed the basis for the Sexual harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
There exists a thin line between ‘casual banter’ and harassment
In reality, sexual harassment is still considered a no-go situation. The woman is reluctant to report it as the process is cumbersome, humiliating and accusatory. “We agree with your need to get justice, these things should not happen, but don’t create trouble for the organisation! Let’s settle it like ‘mature’ adults!” The person who complains is considered a trouble-maker, a person with a traditional mindset who does not understand the casual banter of the modern workplace, someone who is trying to spoil a man’s career because of her own insecurities. It may even be seen as targetted vendetta against a person.
In the Bangalore University, the Senate members struggled to bring in a sexual harassment policy with guidelines for all institutions within its ambit. Members of various organisations were invited to help the process which has now been adopted by the University.
Sexual harassment committees are largely on paper
Most committees are formed ad-hoc when a problem arises, witness the knee-jerk reaction of the Supreme Court after the blogged accusation by the intern. Though practically all corporates have a committee, it is on paper. On an average, because of the huge issue of victim-blaming, the complainant suffers in silence for a long period of time before taking any action. She usually goes to a senior in her team or department who will then inform his or her superiors. The HR department is brought in. The complainant goes through multiple interviews till it is decided to call the grievance committee and formally lodge the complaint and start proceedings. Very often, the company starts looking for the Act-prescribed external member of the committeeafter the complaint is lodged.
There is need for a system that can empower women to report
We have very few personnel trained in assessing and investigating a case of sexual harassment. The need to keep the names of both parties confidential also reduces the chances of getting added information regarding others who may have been harassed by the same person. Sexual harassment is a function, not of sexuality, but of power. A perpetrator uses his position, his authority and often, his personality, to harass with impunity. It is often an open secret in his office that he is ‘fond of flirting’ or that he is ‘a lady’s man’. Subtle labelling which makes the complainant appear ‘narrow-minded’ or overtly sensitive. Sometimes other women may say,” well he behaved with me like that too, but I did not care!” This attitude further emboldens the perpetrator to continue harassing others. A zero-tolerance policy is useful but implementing it on an every day basis would be the crux of the matter. Women will be empowered to report only when the company has a well-established committee, an easily accessible complaint recording system, effective time-bound processes for a thorough confidential investigation and a just conclusion.
Though companies have started creating committees, the inertia in action in still to be overcome.