Last month, the Supreme Court directed that all bodies like the BCI (Bar Council of India) and MCI (Medical Council of India), which regulate professions, need to ensure that committees are set up to deal with all cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. This directive came close on the heels of the sexual harassment bill in the workplace that was passed in the Lok Sabha, and is now pending approval in the Rajya Sabha.
It would not be wrong or even far-fetched to say that a large number of working women have faced some sort of sexual harassment at the workplace at some stage of their careers. The harassment may have fallen in the realm of persistent and unwanted attention from a male colleague, it could have been more physical in nature where the aggressor accidentally bumps into the victim or finds opportunities to be alone with her; it could even be intimidation if the aggressor happens to be the boss. The area of sexual harassment in the workplace is vast and unfortunately, a zone that women still aren’t comfortable tackling, head on.
According to Anindita Sengupta, writer, poet and founder of the feminist blog Ultra Violet, sexual harassment at the workplace is generally about asserting power. “In a workplace, typically, it’s the boss or an influential colleague who is the harasser, someone who feels he can get away with it. The enjoyment derived is often about the victim’s discomfiture and helplessness.
Usually, sexual predators are also bullies and they’re motivated by many of the same things: insecurity, cowardice, a need to feed their own ego by demolishing another person in some way.” Sociologist Dr Sarala Bijapurkar suggests that patriarchy is greatly responsible for sexual harassment. “Male domination and the control of women are possible only through behaviour where the superiority of men gets established. Gender inequality is the outcome of male domination and superiority,” she says.
Health of the harassed
Psychologist Seema Hingorrany who has treated many cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after the sexual harassment has been inflicted says that typically, the victim suffers from depression, anxiety and trauma. Hingorrany says that employers need to take the mental health of the victim seriously. “It is important for organisations to appoint a psychologist who will help discuss women’s problems at work,” she says.
The first time the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace came into the limelight was in 1997 when the Supreme Court defined sexual harassment in public interest litigation. Known as the Vishakha Judgement, the SC had said that “Gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and right to work with dignity, which is a universally recognised basic human right…” The Supreme Court had then taken the judgement further by even formulating preventive measures and redress mechanisms.
Sonia Mathur, who heads Human Resources at one of India’s largest financial institutions, says that they have a strong policy to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.
To begin with, there is an employee handbook that can be accessed by any employee online and it offers redressal for any sort of harassment and grievance. That apart, the company, as per the Supreme Court guidelines, has established a committee comprising seven members from across functions. “We have ensured that no member of the committee is from the same department. The committee also includes an external member and the ratio of members is skewed more towards women,” says Mathur.
Sense and the workplace
Bijapurkar, however, feels that there is a long way before organisations employers become sensitive. “How many employers/companies and establishment have a grievance redressal cell for women?
How many men and women in such cells are really sensitive to the humiliation of the victim of sexual harassment and stand by her and offer their support? How many women would come forward to say that a boss, a colleague, a lower level clerk, the liftman, the security man brushed against her or touched her, indecently?” she asks.
“There is a sense of humiliation when women become the object of unwarranted behaviour by men. A women who complains either orally or in writing has to explain and possibly prove to the concerned personnel that she has been a victim of sexual harassment, which only adds to her humiliation,” she adds.
Things, however, aren’t as bleak as they seem. In the last decade, tackling sexual harassment at the workplace, including in India, has become a serious concern and the judiciary and legislature are taking steps to address fears. Even the private and public sector has started stepping up in laying down measures within organisations in addition to what the law directs.
MiDDAY has a Sexual Harassment Policy that forms part of its Ethics Policy