It’s time to sanitise offices

28 November 2013 | Shruti Kohli | NEW DELHI

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Sexual harassment at workplace is not a new problem. Just that it has made it to the public space recently. Quite a few cases of sexual assaults and sexual harassment have been reported the most high-profile among them being the Tarun Tejpal sexual assault case and an intern lawyer’s allegations that she was sexually harassed by Ashok Kumar Ganguly, the retired Supreme Court judge who had sent A Raja to jail in the 2G spectrum scam.

 

This sudden spurt in reportage of such cases has come as a shock to a world where it was a taboo for women to speak out about even a lecherous look leave alone sexual assaults. And the world is so shocked that some men have been heard saying, “We will think a thousand times before hiring women now.” The message is, “We will not change. If you want to work, put up with it.” Some others have arguments like, “Men are also sexually harassed. What about that?”

 

Sexual harassment by definition implies sexual harassment of a woman by a man. The International Labour Organisation, while researching on sexual harassment at workplace, found that while sexual harassment of women by men was a serious problem there were men who were being sexually harassed, by other men. Not by women!

 

Shomona Khanna, lawyer, Supreme Court, says, “’Men being harassed by women’ is not even a statistic. But yes, when it comes to men being sexually harassed by other men, it is a problem and that’s a gap in our law. Men have no law to fall back on in such a situation.”

 

Sexual harassment at workplace is serious and omnipresent. Indian offices are not equipped to tackle the issue. The Supreme Court had issued the Vishakha guidelines as long back as 1997. But organizations have not found it necessary to adopt and implement these guidelines. In April this year, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, replaced the Vishakha guidelines. The act makes it mandatory for every organisation to have an Internal Complaints Committee. The definition of workplace has been widened to include homes (employers of domestic helps) and every other setup where women are employed.

 

Majority of working women and employers still don’t know about this act. Companies’ induction programmes must include sexual harassment and gender sensitization sessions. Besides, women must speak out if someone is making uncomfortable sexual advances. They must talk to their colleagues, friends and family and complain.

 

About the men who are skeptical about hiring women, when they say they are scared of working with women, they are implying that they don’t know where to draw the line. Who would buy this? When a man is attempting sexual harassment or assault, he knows it exactly. Deep within he is nervous else why would he make covert advances rather than openly going about the business? What strengthens him is his experience which tells him that women are lame ducks. They take any insult lying down. So he goes about his business unperturbed.

 

And why do women keep mum? Obviously because of the stigma attached. Besides, the system is such that if a woman goes to court about it, she should be ready to dedicate the rest of her life to the case and to accept the “fact” that she was actually the culprit by just being a woman and tickling a man’s libido!

 

This seems to be changing now thanks to the protests after the 16 December 2012 Delhi gang rape. Sexual harassment, sexual assaults etc are being discussed in the public domain. This has helped. If this public discourse continues with similar passion, expect an immense improvement in the system and also the mindsets.

 

Meanwhile, the working woman is here to stay! Men, who are scared of hiring her, can either keep getting scared or figure out their moves.

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What to Do!

If you, or a woman or women around you, are subject to domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, and other atrocities at home or anywhere else, here is what you can do.

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