For every single day of 42 long years, the nursing staff at the King Edward Memorial (KEM) hospital looked after their special patient in ward number 4 as one of their own. On Monday evening, the current staff bade her fond farewells. Even those who believed that Aruna Shanbaug had, in all ways but one, “died” on the night of November 27, 1973, when she suffered a brutal sexual and murderous assault, were touched by the utter dedication of the hospital and its nursing staff towards her well-being.
It’s the stuff of medico-legal legends. The Supreme Court, while rejecting the petition for her mercy killing in March 2011, had this to say: “…in the world of medicine, there would be not be another single case where such a person is cared and nurtured in bed for so long and has not developed a single bed sore. This speaks volumes for the excellence of care that the KEM nursing staff has given her. This care is given not as a part of duty, but as a part of feeling of oneness”.
In the popular narrative that is her story now, the enduring care for her in and by the KEM hospital matches the pain of that night and the pathos of her life. In her long battle, Aruna inspired many tales and legends, a well-received book and translations, ethical debates on euthanasia, and legal deliberations on mercy killing that eventually gave Indians the right to passive euthanasia. She herself was denied it when the hospital steadfastly refused to consider passive euthanasia in her case. It sparked fierce debates. Aruna Shanbaug became the face of that debate in the country.
She could also have been the face of sexual harassment and assault at the workplace, but this issue became a footnote in the popular narrative. The corridors and rooms of the hospital that she worked in and lived the better part of her life were not immune to these, from the stories that women staff shared, on the condition of anonymity, in 1997. This was when I went there reporting in the wake of the Supreme Court judgement recognising sexual harassment/assault in the workplace as a violation of human rights and laying down the Vishakha guidelines. “Hers was the worst, but sexual harassment/assault is not all that uncommon here,” a junior doctor had then said.
It would not be the only hospital in which the predominant women nursing staff, women doctors and health workers, such as ayahs, suffer harassment and assaults – then or now. Hospitals, both public and private, are among the workplaces with higher incidences of sexual harassment and assaults. More than half of the women staff in hospitals reported some form of harassment in a study report in Kolkata in 2007. They identified four — verbal harassment was the topmost followed by psychological, sexual gestures and exposure and unwanted touch.
“Nurses at both levels, the sister in charges (SIC) and staff nurses (SN) stated they face abuse from senior doctors, labour staff, relatives and patients,” found well-known researchers Padma Deosthali and Sangeeta Rege. In the paper authored for the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), they noted, “Often, young nurses and student nurses are forced to tackle several awkward questions… Nurses expressed a sense of fear (with) evening and night duties, as doctors sit in the casualty, dressed in underpants and drink at work. Nurses observed drinking in patients as well as their relatives, and therefore, perceive working in male wards as unsafe… They fear complaining against the ward boys and Class 4 employees as the latter threaten them with complaints to the union".
The notification of the anti-sexual harassment law last year should have strengthened the reporting and complaints mechanism in all workplaces, including hospitals. It will go a long way in making these places more secure for women workers. Let Aruna Shanbaug also be remembered in this context.