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Shrouded under a veil of shame – sexual harassment at work

© imago/Hoch Zwei Stock/Angerer

© imago/Hoch Zwei Stock/Angerer

There was a time sexual harassment at work was an issue shrouded under a veil of shame. Women who were at the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention either from peers or superiors did not report it for fear of ridicule. In case they raised a voice against it, their employment could be terminated. Sexual harassment at work is one of the leading causes of attrition for women at work.

However, things seem to be changing.

In recent times, three high-profile cases of sexual harassment have made headlines in India. In November 2013, Tarun Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka magazine was accused of sexual harassment by an intern during an event the magazine had organized in Goa. The incident allegedly took place inside a lift of a five-star hotel where all the invitees were staying. At around the same time, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India AK Ganguly was accused of “unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature.”

Tarun Tejpal © Getty Images/AFP/Damien Meyer

Tarun Tejpal © Getty Images/AFP/Damien Meyer

Then in February 2015, R. K. Pachauri, the director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), head of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) was accused of sexual harassment by an employee. The First Information Report (FIR) accused Pachauri of assault, sexual harassment, stalking and criminal intimidation. The case attracted global attention due to his position as a well-known climate change guru, who made India proud in 2007 by receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of the IPCC. The organization of which he was the founder and director-general, TERI, is well-known for its interventions, both global and local in the fight against climate change. However, in light of the accusation Pachauri had to resign from the IPCC. Last month the TERI governing council finally sacked him.

Something similar happened in the Tarun Tejpal case. He gave up the editorship of the magazine Tehelka that he had founded. Once lauded for having introduced sting journalism into the Indian media, Tejpal found himself at the receiving end of media scorn after the incident. As for Justice Ganguly, after his indictment by the three-member committee he had to resign from the West Bengal Human Rights Panel in January 2014.

Though there are no official figures regarding the prevalence of sexual harassment at workplace in India, in 2015, in a written reply in the Lok Sabha, the Women and Child Development Minister (WCD) Minister Maneka Gandhi stated that there were 526 cases of sexual harassment of women at workplace reported in 2014.

The increase in the reporting of sexual harassment at work may be attributed to the widespread awareness and anger in regard to gender violence after the December 2012 gang rape in India and the passing of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

However, with these three cases involving powerful men making headlines, the issue of sexual harassment at workplace has also become a topic of living room conversations. The publication of the details of the non-consensual sexual encounter inside the lift of a five-star hotel between Tarun Tejpal and the intern, as well as the circulation of the ‘mushy’ persuasive SMSes sent by Pachauri to a women employee have brought out the nature of sexual harassment like never before in the Indian public. For example, for the first time, the term ‘digital rape’ or penetration with fingers came to light, and it was established that ‘digital rape’ was punishable.

Rajendra K. Pachauri © picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Osan

Rajendra K. Pachauri © picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Osan

These cases have not only seen the fall of some of the most powerful men in Indian society, but the revelations have also created a mirror for every man and woman to look at and judge whether he or she is a victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment. The veil of shame that surrounds sexual harassment at workplace has been removed. It has sent a message across to the perpetrators that such acts would no longer be tolerated in silence or fear.

Thanks to these incidents, today Indian working women need not fear that men in power would get away with their actions. If accused of sexual harassment under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the services of the perpetrator may be terminated. The complainant would be paid a reasonable compensation.

Apart from this, the Act in continuance with the Vishaka Guidelines, makes it mandatory for all offices with 10 or more employees to have an internal complaints committee to address grievances in a stipulated time or face penalty.

However, this spurt in awareness is just the beginning of a long battle towards the elimination of sexual harassment from Indian workspaces. While the above mentioned cases involved women from an educated urban middle class background, women in small towns with not so privileged backgrounds continue to put up with sexual harassment. Several of them hesitate to come forward due to the stigma involved. They do not want to get involved in long winding court cases. In 2013, a lab assistant, protesting against sexual harassment she faced from the college principal and subsequent termination of employment, set herself on fire outside the Delhi Secretariat and succumbed to her injuries. Such incidents only show the impaired grievance redressal mechanism in India, and the state of thousands of Indian women who struggle against this menace in their workplaces.

Author: Elsa Mathews

Editor: Marjory Linardy



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07.06.2016 | 10:50