Victims of sexual harassment (at work) rarely talk about it, much less file a complaint. If they do, they are blamed for it.Vaishnavi Sundar’s documentary, But What Was She Wearing, addresses the problem and highlights issues that prevent employees from seeking help.
CHENNAI:You’d have to be living in a cave if you hadn’t heard of the TVF case! The Viral Fever’s (TVF) founder, Arunabh Kumar was recently arrested by the Mumbai police for sexually harassing women. But much before the TVF case blew out, filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar had begun researching on sexual harassment to make a documentary. Called But What Was She Wearing, the recently-launched trailer gives us a glimpse into the nitty gritties of the 2013 law (Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace), a reflection of the so-called committees and the voice of victims.
Talking to us about her four-month research, Vaishnavi says, “It hasn’t been pleasant. Though many came forward to share their experiences with me, quite a few were hesitant to do so on camera and a few backed out later too. It was understandable but it is also important to speak out.”
While 70% of victims don’t take action, the ones who do, are mostly disappointed. They are either taunted for complaining, say, a week later or believed to have provoked the perpetrator. “It’s easier to say ‘Why was she wearing something like this’, ‘Why was she socialising with that boy’, ‘What does she expect when she goes out to drink’. I don’t know, she expected to get a hangover?” rues a victim.
On the other hand, a lot of organisations don’t even have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). Why? We ask Viji Hari, author and CEO of Human Resources Consultancy Firm KelpHR. “A lot of employers are defensive and worried about putting ideas into the minds of their employees. They believe that since there have been no complaints from employees, there are no issues. But their employees could be silently suffering and it won’t take them long to vent their frustration on blogs. Cost is another factor that employers are apprehensive about. But there is so much content available on the internet that it does not cost much to be compliant at all.” Besides, it is the employer’s duty to provide safe workplace to all their employees.
But even if an ICC is not set up in your firm, you can approach your district office that constitutes a Local Complaints Committee (LCC). “Now, victims from unorganised sectors including salespersons, housemaids and independent workers can lodge a complaint there. Officially, the LCC receives complaints from establishments where the ICC has not been constituted (as less than 10 workers in the company) or if the complaint is against the employer himself,” adds Viji. “A lot of organisations are emphasising it as part of their employee’s awareness to report any and all valid instances of sexual harassment even if it is by a customer,” adds Viji.
Abuse of any kind from customers shouldn’t be tolerated either, as it is both ethically and lawfully wrong. The recent case of an airline staff slapped by a politician is an example. And of course, internet is a key tool here as well. “We are stepping into a more open, confident world where customers do not hesitate to take matters to Twitter. The victim has the right to voice all concerns on social media.”
The 2013 Act is, however, protects women, and not men? “5% of men do suffer harassment at workplace from other men and/or women. As mentioned in my book Behind Closed Cubicles, one of the story talks about the HR manager of a large IT firm. While he was investigating a female employee for theft, the latter lady confessed. For the fear of losing her job, she offered to do sexual favours to the HR manager.” Most men don’t lodge a complaint due to embarrassment. Vaishnavi has been looking for male victims for the documentary, but “it’s harder to get them to talk about it, as it becomes a question about their manhood,”she says.
Interestingly, this project is a curriculum that she designed as an internship exercise for Hannah Latimer Snell, who is coming from Portland, Oregan, to shadow her work as a filmmaker. Vaishnavi is crowdfunding for her film, and she will likely begin its shoot in September.
But What was She Wearing will scrutinize the Act of 2013 by juxtaposing the expectations and realities of seeking redressal. The documentary hopes to portray some successful and unsuccessful stories, and digs deeper into the culture that deflects the blame by shaming the abused.
You can watch the trailer,‘But What Was She Wearing’ on YouTube channel: Lime Soda Films
(The writer is a freelance journalist)