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Sexual harassment at work: could this be India's litmus test?

After years of inaction, things may be about to change

Sexual harassment at work: could this be India's litmus test?

Anti-rape protesters in Delhi (file photo)

Poulomi Saha, Mumbai

November 26, 2013

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The past week has seen the Indian media embroiled in one of its biggest scandals of recent times. A renowned magazine editor was accused of sexually assaulting a female colleague at the magazine’s annual get-together.

Tehelka’s editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal was charged with having misused his position to molest an employee. He is alleged to have acknowledged and apologized for the act initially, but has now offered a different version of events, suggesting that the encounter may have been consensual.

The case has opened up a Pandora’s box, forcing the country’s media to turn the mirror inwards, and at the same time reigniting dialogue on sexual harassment in the workplace. Questions are being asked if India is doing enough to protect its female workers.

The answer is ‘no’.

To begin with, it has taken the country 16 years to enact a law that will ensure a safe working environment for women. It was 1997 when the Supreme Court ordered the establishment of grievance redressal committees at workplaces. Those guidelines outlawed sexual harassment and unwelcome behavior such as physical contact, demand or request for sexual favors, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct.

The law finally got the presidential nod this April but is yet to be notified and enforced. Ironically, in a headline grabbing case, an intern has accused a former Supreme Court judge of harassment in 2012.

An Oxfam India survey last year found as many as 17 percent of working women in India have experienced sexual harassment at work. Women in the unorganized sector were perceived as even more susceptible. Fear of losing one’s job or being stigmatized are among the reasons that prevent women from raising their voices.

“'Who will marry you if you bring this out?’ ‘What will your husband and in-laws say?’ ‘How will it affect your career prospects?’ ‘Who will believe you?’ ‘Will any colleague stand by you?’ and the like are questions which sap women of the little courage they can muster,” says Anuya Warty, a professor and researcher on women’s rights issues. 

A senior woman executive at a global banking giant, who has asked not to be named, says she has felt victimized several times. “I’ve been asked out for coffee, sent unwanted messages, asked about my marital status, endured enough banter on ‘you are bloody hot, but such a bitch in the boardroom' kind of comments.” She has complained once and acquired a successful dismissal of the accused, but isn’t sure if it helped. “In cases like this, HR always asks the person to resign, rather than fire the person, so as not to impact the person's future employment prospects. I don't know how to ever fight something as pathetic as that because the guy is free to find employment and harass other women again,” she says.

Human resource experts agree that the sensitizing process has to start at the employee’s induction stage. Sexual harassment policies have to be clearly spelt out through FAQs and do's & don'ts that are widely publicized through the company intranet and on notice boards.  It’s also advisable to allow the complainant the choice to remain anonymous or at least protect their identity, so as to keep their employment record blemish-free whatever the outcome.

In India, people are keenly watching the twists and turns that the Tehelka case takes. Having breached the cocooned environs of sophisticated corporate workspaces, it is expected to be a test case in redressal standards.

As renowned social activist and lawyer Flavia Agnes said in her op-ed in a leading English daily: “Now the time for the litmus test has come. The time has come to test these definitions and the stringent punishments. To test our commitment to equality before the law and equal protection of law, a basic and fundamental principle of our constitution.”

Poulomi Saha is a journalist based in Mumbai, India

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