At the workplace and educational institutions, women and children are victims of sexual harassment—a trend that is increasing every year. Are the existing laws enough and are they being implemented rigorously? by Nikita Sharma
Reena Saini is an unlikely warrior for her sex. A rookie actress from Jaipur who came to Mumbai with stars in her eyes to become the next Katrina Kaif or Priyanka Chopra, she soon realised she would have to play a role that is mandatory for many actresses to get a role in Bollywood. In October last year, she filed an FIR against casting director Sohan Thakur for sexual harassment. Her complaint said that Thakur felt up her thigh while travelling in his car. She managed to get out of the vehicle after protesting against his behaviour. Subsequently, he reportedly called her up and threatened to hobble her career if she told anyone about what happened. “He told me, ‘if you say this to anyone, it will be your minus in the industry’,” she said. “People won’t see you as a good girl.” Thakur, who is absconding, has denied the allegation and said he would sue Reena for defamation. In a Facebook post, he said that Reena was upset about her stagnant career and other emotional issues, and was accusing him for publicity.
Sexual harassment is no longer the elephant in the room. In the workplace, homes, educational institutions and public spaces, women face the uncomfortable truth that predatory men can get away with violating their bodies and dignity. Ironically, it takes events in the West to gather velocity for Indian society to react. Celebrities have power, and their voices are heard with greater attention. The Harvey Weinstein affair, which blew the lid off sexual exploitation in Hollywood, had a domino effect, claiming the reputation of many powerful men in the corporate and political world.
The anti-harassment wave was initiated by Hollywood star Ashley Judd, who gave an interview to The New York Times in October 2017 about Weinstein’s attempts to coerce her into having sex. Soon, other actresses and even actors began to expose other powerful moguls, starting a wave of accusations that spread across the echelons of power.In response to a PIL filed by the NGO ‘Initiatives for Inclusion Foundation’, the Supreme Court last month issued notices to the Centre and states to explain whether sexual harassment of women at workplace is being addressed despite Parliament enacting a law in 2013. The NGO in its complaint said that the Act was not being implemented in letter and spirit.
Capital markets regulations a few years ago mandated companies belonging to BSE 100 to report the number of their women employees, and the number of sexual harassment charges made by them since 2012-13. Data from 52 of these firms available for the past five financial years (2013 to 2017) reveals that reported instances of harassment have increased and the ratio of such cases per women has also risen. The Indian National Bar Association (INBA) survey (2016) conducted across private companies revealed that office was the most sexually aggressive place for women. Most sexual harassment cases were reported in IT and banking sectors. Education or wealth does not seem to be preventive factors in sexual misconduct.
A sexual harassment case has been registered against venture capital investor Mahesh Murthy following a complaint by author Rashmi Bansal. Co-founder and entrepreneur Pooja Chauhan posted the lewd response from Murthy to her Christmas greetings on her LinkedIn page. Another entrepreneur, Wamika Iyer, founder of FrshDay.in, alleged he made implicit sexual comments in a conversation.
Senior advocate Rekha Aggarwal says sexual harassment is not something casual to be ignored. “Under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, staring, stalking, voyeurism, and even peeping are crimes. Education plays a big role and etiquette being taught at home also needs to be changed,” she adds.
Between 2014 and 2015, the National Crime Records Bureau data states that the number of sexual harassment incidents in work places more than doubled, from 57 to 119. There was a 51 per cent rise in sexual harassment cases at other work-related places from 469 in 2014 to 714 in 2015. Another survey in 2017 by INBA discovered that of the 6,047 participants (both men and women), 38 per cent admitted to facing sexual harassment at work. Significantly, 69 per cent did not complain. The reason, according to psychologists, is that they are afraid of losing their jobs, being maligned and isolated at the workplace. Dr Samir Parikh, director, Mental Health & Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Hospital, Gurgaon, says triggers for the aggressor do not have any meaning. “It can be anything from power needs, exploitation, discrimination and prejudice. There is lack of remorse about causing harm to another individual,” Parikh adds.
In 1997, following the rape of a woman activist, the Supreme Court set down the Vishakha Guidelines to handle sexual harassment cases. It was superseded by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. However, researchers found that there was little desire on part of employers to sensitise the workforce at all levels on gender. National surveys by organisations such as Saheli, SARDI, Sanhita, Sakshi, Lawyers Collective-ILO, Yugantar, the Centre for Transforming India, OXFAM and INBA showed that, between 1996 and 2016, majority of women employees did not report sexual harassment because they did not have confidence in the organisation.
“Mindset of men is that they are superior. They think it is their prerogative to treat women as they want,” says Aggarwal. Influential predators such as RK Pachauri still evade justice, in spite of stringent laws. Now sexually harassed women at their workplaces can lodge their complaints on a government portal—‘SHe-box’ (sexual harassment electronic box) hosted on the Women and Child Development Ministry’s website. The complaint mechanism, which the ministry had initiated for government employees in July, is now open for women working in the private sector, too.
With the advent of social media, Twitter and Facebook are forums to name and shame sexual predators. The #MeToo campaign started by social activist and community organiser Tarana Burke in 2006 on the Myspace social network found new traction in Europe, America and also India. It began when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted against Weinstein: “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. Suddenly Twitter and Facebook were flooded with posts.
In March 2017, an anonymous blog post alleging sexual harassment by Arunabh Kumar, founder of digital media start-up TVF (The Viral Fever), led to more women in the company exposing him as a serial assaulter. Kumar has been booked by the Mumbai Police. Crowdfunding is becoming popular to help victimised women access legal aid. Emily Hunt, a business strategy consultant in London who has worked for IBM, raised £100,000 to bring her alleged rapist to justice. CrowdJustice, a social media platform founded by activist and litigator Julia Salasky, helped the Centre for Women’s Justice to challenge the early release of serial rapist John Worboys.
“But socio-cultural change needs to take place. Harassers often target women who are timid, single, young or single mothers. They look out for women who will not speak up,” says Anna Chandy, chairperson and trustee, The Live Love Laugh Foundation.
But women who speak out are facing social media backlash too. South Indian actor Parvathy, who made her Bollywood debut with Qarib Qarib Singlle opposite Irrfan Khan, had criticised a few dialogues in a Mammootty film as ‘misogynist’. Trolls, presumably the superstar’s fans, unleashed a vicious and abusive online campaign against her, with murder and rape threats—one man has been arrested. Some of Parvathy’s colleagues even joined the trolling.
“A can of worms has been opened and I am determined that it shall not be closed. There are issues that ought to be discussed and aired,” Parvathy told a reporter. Other Mollywood actors such as Anna Rajan, Sajitha Madathil and Rima Kallingal have been trolled for similar remarks. The Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a newly formed group by women professionals working in the Malayalam film world, promises to be a powerful force against sexual harassment in the industry. The collective was formed after major film industry personalities supported actor Dileep, for allegedly orchestrating the kidnapping and assault of a popular actress. Outrage on Facebook snowballed into a movement that led to the formation.
“It was inspired by our colleague. The first time we met we just talked about our own experiences,” Malayalam actor Padmapriya told the media. “We realised this was much bigger than what had happened to our colleague.” The group provides counselling, legal advice and a formal redressal mechanism in cases of sexual harassment or assault. The Mumbai-based Cine and TV Artists Association has received around 50 formal complaints of sexual harassment in the past two years compared to 12 three years before. Sexual harassment in the industry is the worst kept secret, and it’s not just actresses. Actor Shiny Ahuja was jailed for raping his maid way back in 2011.
Much before women join the workplace, they are subjected to sexual harassment in school and college. A 22-year-old former student at the Modern Education Society’s (MES) College of Engineering in Pune has filed two complaints against her former professors. While still a student she refrained from filing an official complaint. “The same people were responsible for my grades. I had no option but to keep my mouth shut,” she said. After her course was over, she complained to the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in October 2017. The ICC did not respond and she was forced to file an FIR. In 2015, a survey of girl students of Panjab University revealed over 71 per cent of them have faced sexual harassment. Another report said students did not consider Delhi University’s North Campus a very safe place.
ecently, Raya Sarkar, a US-based law student, released a list of over 60 academics in Indian universities who have been accused of sexual harassment. A subsequent list of academics and activists, compiled and released online by Malati Kumar, mentioned the persons and their alleged transgressions. According to Malati, “The list was not to ‘shame’ anyone but to make students wary.” The University Grants Commission has directed higher educational institutions to form ICCs to sensitise staff and students on gender issues and sexual harassment. In the body, at least one-half of the total members shall be women. People holding senior administrative positions are not allowed to be members of ICCs.
The inquiry has to be completed within 90 days and the institution has to take effective action within 30 days after the receipt of recommendation. Campuses should also have a Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) or a Complaints Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CCASH).The situation seems to be getting worse in the Jawaharlal Nehru University, as the GSCASH committee was scrapped by former vice-chancellor S K Sopory. Delhi-based Amit Ranjan, an independent scholar and research associate at Florida International University, Miami, says, “It was a democratically elected body. Now, the university wants it to be a nominated body. But this doesn’t seem to be a proper mechanism.”
JNU’s elected student representative for GSCASH, Shreya Ghosh, says, “The situation of cases being reported is in a limbo, as the case is sub-judice in the High Court.”Of the victims of sexual harassment, children are most vulnerable. In 2015, NCRB reported 8,800 cases were filed under the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act dealing with sexual assault on children—one case is registered every hour. In around 95 per cent of the cases, the perpetrator was known to the child. A survey of 900 young girls and boys in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana and Delhi revealed that 52 per cent of students experienced leering and staring followed by touching, pinching and groping. Schoolgirls faced 52 per cent incidents of harassment at bus stops, and said 23 per cent of the incidents happened within the campus.
Now schools in Kolkata are inducting parents in committees to examine complaints and conduct a security audit. The HRD Ministry has received complaints about a girl’s gangrape at a Sonipat School, the sexual assault of a four-and-a-half-year-old girl by a school employee in Rajasthan and mental and sexual harassment of a schoolgirl at Haldwani. A few weeks ago, two physical education teachers of GD Birla Centre for Education in Kolkata were arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a four-year-old nursery student on the school premises.
Another school in Kolkata, MP Birla Foundation Higher Secondary School, suspended a staff member for allegedly sexually assaulting a three-year-old in school twice. In October 2017, an 11-year-old student of the Kaushalya World School in Noida was repeatedly sodomised by a school employee who was the head of the school’s media cell. In a Ghaziabad government school, a seven-year-old student was sadistically assaulted by a senior. A school principal was jailed for sexually assaulting a seven-year-old girl student in Jharkhand. Such instances have led to a PIL being filed in the Supreme Court seeking to lay down guidelines for safety of schoolchildren.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that parents would have access to the feed from CCTV cameras installed in government school classrooms. Following the recent sexual assault of a four-year-old girl in a prominent Delhi school by a classmate, the Centre has decided to rope in NGOs to form a panel to discuss how to curb sexual abuses. “The crimes against children that are reported every day are a few compared to the number of such incidents. We, the stakeholders, society, parents, teachers and government need to save our children and their childhood,” says Jyoti Duhan Rathee, member, Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
Teachers of St. Xavier’s Collegiate School in Kolkata are being asked to sign an undertaking to abide by the school’s norms for protection of ‘minors and vulnerable adults’, failing which their employment would be terminated. In November 2017, the Madras High Court directed all the district collectors in Tamil Nadu to file a report on steps taken to enforce the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. A petition alleged that 15-year-old girls working in mills, factories and other work places in the state are sexually abused.
Following instances of harassment in the film industry, Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi wrote to 25 leading Bollywood producers and actors such as Karan Johar, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan to “provide a safe, secure and inclusive work environment for women” in line with national laws. But the unmasking of sexual predators that is going on in the West is unlikely to happen anytime soon in India where social and economic factors are tilted in favour of men. But as Washington-based writer on gender issues and development Meera Vijayan says, “It will be long before things change—heck, culture doesn’t shift overnight. But the seeds have been sown. It’s time to start listening when colleagues ask for help, to question bosses, and most importantly, start standing up for those whose voices are unheard.” It’s the only way forward.
with inputs from Ayesha Singh, Shillpi A Singh and Kanu Sarda
Between 2014 and 2015, the NCRB data states that the number of sexual harassment incidents at workplaces more than doubled from 57 to 119. There was a 51 per cent rise in such cases at other work-related places from 469 in 2014 to 714 in 2015.
A survey by the Indian National Bar Association in 2017 discovered that of the 6,047 participants (men and women), 38 per cent admitted to facing sexual harassment at work. However, 69 per cent did not complain.