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It’s tough for a woman to report sexual harassment at work

Instead of dismissing a victim as a pawn, we must understand how tough it is for a woman to report sexual harassment at work

columns Updated: Feb 13, 2016 00:53 IST
Lalita Panicker
Lalita Panicker
Hindustan Times
Workplace harassment,Sexual harassment,Tarun Tejpal case
Workplace harassment exists everywhere, from corporate offices to farms and factories. Instead of dismissing a victim as a pawn, we must understand how tough it is for a woman to report sexual harassment at work(REUTERS)

This is an insidious argument that gains currency every time a sexual harassment case, especially a high-profile one, comes up. The woman in question was using her looks or wiles to entrap the hapless man. In the RK Pachauri case, this has come up more than once. There are dark hints that the woman in question did not repel his advances forcefully enough, that she was a pawn of larger interests out to unseat a great public personality, that the whole situation may have been consensual and that she used this relationship if it can be termed that to further her career. Her emails were ambiguous, she could have upped and left, she should have reported the matter on the spot and so on.

In the Tarun Tejpal case, it was alleged that the woman in question willingly accompanied him a second time into the lift after the incident in question was reported to have taken place. In the David Davidar case, it was said that the woman was an active participant in either banter or something more. But this obscures the real issue. Let us assume that a woman indeed tried to entrap a powerful man at her workplace. Irrespective of her motive, it is absolutely incumbent on that man, in most cases in a supervisory role, to turn down such approaches and ensure that all future meetings with that person be conducted with a witness present or in public. In the Pachauri case, if indeed she attempted an entrapment, he could have told the woman that this was inappropriate conduct and that she should cease to do so, failing which he could have taken disciplinary action against her.

But none of this happened, as the damning FIR shows. The entrapment theory seems a smart ploy to get powerful men off the hook, to portray them as victims of the attentions of opportunistic women rather than acknowledge that most of them are sexual predators, and that too serial offenders. In a recent case, an Iranian television presenter had to flee the country after she took on her harasser who was her boss publicly after years of suffering his unwanted attentions. That she was a single mother did not help her case.

We got to know about these cases because they involve high-profile people and the media has been hyper-active on this front. But though the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 covers all establishments, I find it hard to believe that a woman working in a small establishment or factory will find the courage to speak up against her harasser. If she does, the likely response will be that she was asking for it or she will have to quietly leave. In most cases, a woman who speaks up in such a scenario would be labelled a troublemaker, someone who is not fit for the workplace, someone covering up her inadequacies and incompetence by making frivolous charges.

In India, there are other challenges that women face at workplace. There is a vast cohort of women who work in the agriculture sector. They work in fields at the mercy of male overseers or landlords. There is no recourse to any work-related mechanism like a committee, which is mandatory in all establishments. There are women workers in villages who are often victims of a patriarchal system which feels threatened by their attempts to change the status quo. The case of Bhanwari Devi comes to mind. She campaigned relentlessly against child marriage in a Rajasthan village for which she was raped by a group of upper-caste men. The rapists were an old man and his nephews. With no help from her employer, in this case the state government, she sought legal help. The judge in question came out with an obnoxious statement that upper-caste men are not likely to rape a women in the presence of younger relatives and that Bhanwari was hardly a candidate for male attention as she was an old woman and hence not attractive.

The time factor is often used to denounce the motives of a woman victim. There have been several cases, not just in India, but across the world where women come forward much later, maybe even years later, to report a case of harassment. The question then snidely asked is, if she was so distressed, why did she wait so long to voice her complaint? Could it be that the harasser is now in a very powerful position and she hopes to cash in on this to get either compensation or publicity? The most plausible answer is that long after the trauma, the woman has finally gathered enough courage to speak up. Or that she has been emboldened by the fact that someone else has been brave enough to voice their experience.

Instead of dismissing the woman complainant as a mercenary or a disgruntled employee, we should pause to think of how difficult it is for a woman in India to make such allegations, which could leave the door wide open to all sorts of insinuations and insults. Despite the outward trappings of modernity in pockets, we remain a deeply conservative society where it is not done to openly talk about sexual matters, even if it is a question of harassment. The other problem that a woman who makes an allegation of harassment faces is providing evidence to buttress her case.

In the Pachauri case, the Tejpal case, the Davidar case, there were emails and other forms of evidence. But in many cases, since the abuse often happens in private, whether verbal or physical, it boils down to the woman’s word, which is often disbelieved and ridiculed. There are no easy answers on how to deal with this. For a start, all establishments must adhere to the law that there has to be an effective internal committee to look into such cases. Not everyone has the inclination or wherewithal to go to court and many cases can be resolved at the workplace itself. Such a committee should also guard against the victim becoming the object of vindictiveness. Sometimes, men don’t even realise that they are out of line. Remarks that a woman considers unacceptable are not seen in the same light by the men who make them, instead they often mean them to be compliments, albeit of a crude variety. These are issues which should be discussed at the point of entry of employment for both men and women. It may not end sexual harassment, but it would certainly eliminate the excuse that many men come up with that they did not know they were crossing red lines.

First Published: Feb 13, 2016 00:53 IST