Sexual harassment at work place — Why does it get swept under the carpet?

The Vishaka and others v/s the State of Rajasthan judgment brought to the fore the importance of Articles 14, 19, 21, and 32 of the Constitution of India. Many women work outside the home today. Sexual harassment of working women amounts to violation of rights of gender equality and right to life and liberty – also as a logical consequence amounts to violation of right to practice any profession, occupation or trade – the victim is therefore entitled to remedy of Article 32.

The Supreme Court was pleased to issue guidelines to protect the rights of working women and protection against unwanted hugging, touching, sexually colored remarks, gestures, looks, discrimination and rape by men at the workplace.

Many women work outside the home. The myth that men are supposed to perform any of the above acts and women are supposed to suffer such unwanted attention in silence, the fact that such reports have  been ignored or not been taken seriously when reported and fear of reprisals by the victims are some of the reasons that make women  suffer the harassment in silence. The woman also faces stiff opposition sometimes from her own sex if she attempts to report the incident.

A woman reporting such incidents to her superiors ends up with the superior either convincing the woman not to report, promising the woman that it will not happen again and letting the harasser off with a warning. This amounts to sweeping the incident under the rug and does not work as a deterrent. The boss is interested in protecting the goodwill of the place of work.

Her co-workers will neither support nor encourage her to report under the pretext that it will adversely affect the family of the perpetrator which discourages the victim. Incidents of this nature, when they are perpetrated on women of lower strata or caste, the issue gets swept under the carpet as these women are considered insignificant. Women are the last to come forward to speak the truth.

One case that was swept under the carpet due to the non support by women co-employees who did not depose before the committee although they had personally been victims of unwanted attention by the same boss as spinsters. A complaint was received by the head of the department (HoD) who ordered an enquiry into the allegations. The co workers would not corroborate the incidents although they were all women as they were afraid of losing their jobs, their promotions or even their relationships back home now that they were married. One of the victims was willing to disclose but everyone shut her up. What is shocking is that the one who is willing to complain is always pulled back by the co-workers.

In another case we managed to get justice. His promotion was stopped but after the enquiry by the sexual harassment at workplace committee, another departmental inquiry was conducted which went in his favor but he has not been promoted. The bosses always go unpunished.

Women have a deep rooted sense of modesty which makes them hesitate and fluctuate between blaming themselves for the harassment and facing the reality. Quite often they bear in silence for too long a time.

They feel embarrassed to speak out about anything sexual. This hampers their quest for justice. While reporting they would not say he raped me but use terms which the perpetrator can twist like “thene maka hem kelem” which means he raped me but could be twisted.

The hesitation in reporting by the woman of any indignity is because she is afraid that the superiors would not take her seriously as the person abusing her is her boss and he enjoys a good relationship with the higher ups.

As mandated by the guidelines, complaints committees have been appointed but the women employees have not been made aware of the seriousness of committing such acts or that women can complain. The complainant is generally not taken seriously. This has not only led to the complaint being swept under the carpet but has even caused the death of a young woman working for the private sector which did not have a complaints committee.

A woman requires courage to speak out against her immediate boss. She therefore needs to know that her complaint will not be a wasted energy causing more harm than good and that it will not affect her work atmosphere. A social worker should be a part of the complaints team.

The long procedures adopted by the complaints committees make it function like a criminal court. The enquiry requires the woman to produce proof. She cannot produce direct or corroborative evidence. How can sexual harassment have any eye witness? Ear witness will do.
The guidelines clearly state that proof beyond reasonable doubt is not required. To make this an effective mechanism for redressal simplifies the procedure.

Women shy away from speaking about anything sexual, if they are afraid of resistance or disrespect they will abandon the whole injustice and withdraw into their shells. They need support to speak up.
I have experienced that all the bosses and co-workers lobby to prove that the woman is lying, and work to get the woman so scared that she will withdraw the complaint. The cross should not be aimed at insulting her innate modesty.

The societal reaction when we speak out often reinforces our silence. Just transferring or suspending the perpetrator is sweeping the issue under the rug.

The co-workers should say this is not okay and we will not stand for it. There has to be a legal responsibility on the co-workers.
Not reporting encourages perpetration.

Remember you are the complainant; you are not to be blamed.
Document what happened — the incident, the date, the place, those who saw it, anyone you spoke to after the incident.

Generate support before you take action.

Let the harasser know directly or indirectly or explicitly that you are not interested in his attention.

Please do remember that quote “I know I am small in a way, I know I am strong.”

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