Sexual harassment must not be normalised

Shayani Sarkar/ Qrius|

After the Vishakha guidelines were implemented, more and more cases of sexual harassment were reported. One such case was of Rupan Deol Bhaj, an IAS officer. She had fought an eight-year-long legal battle against KPS Gill who was the Director General of Police at that time.

Normalising sexual harassment

On 1 January 2017, an encounter of mass sexual assault took place in Bengaluru. The reaction to the incident on New Year’s Eve opened up some important areas of distinction. The most important being the fact that whenever crimes like sexual harassment or sexual assault occur, the tendency is to blame the victim. Moreover, people tend to dismiss sexual harassment merely as an unfortunate consequence rather than acknowledging the gravity of the crime. In this particular incident, the policemen who had failed to stop the crime were not held accountable. Rather, the victims were blamed as they failed to anticipate it the attack. The same reaction is common in most sexual harassment cases across the country. There is a tendency to dismiss these incidents rather than to acknowledge and address them.

According to a survey conducted by the National Crime Record Bureau, the cases of sexual harassment have increased by 119%. These reports indicate that more women are reporting cases of sexual harassment. However, despite these statistics, the majority of women do not report the crime. This is due to the process of judicial delay. One often gets justice only after a long battle. Hence, women do not feel encouraged to file reports As a result, women often end up normalising and trivialising the matter. This creates a culture of silence.

Dynamics of the workplace

The prevailing dynamics of the workplace creates an ‘unequal distribution of power‘. This encourages discriminatory practices, thereby reinforcing the power distribution between men and women. Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination in the workplace. As long as men occupy higher positions of authority, the patriarchal culture and the culture of silence will prevail.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is often treated as a private matter. It is often mistaken to be an act of consent that is mutually acceptable and desirable. Workplaces have adopted the “Reasonable Women Standard“ while addressing issues of sexual harassment. The Reasonable Women Standard has its roots in the “Reasonable Men Standard”. This standard is considered objectionable because the views of a man are taken into account to determine the degree of the graveness of the crime committed. In these cases, the perpetrators are men.

What needs to be addressed?

Many women who do not report sexual harassment at the workplace feel that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The Women at Workplace Act does not address certain questions. One such question is, who should be in charge of ensuring that workplaces comply with the Act and who should be held responsible if the workplace does not follow the provisions of the Act.

Another reason why most women are not hopeful is due to the fact that most workplaces have not constituted a body to deal with the issues of sexual harassment. The law mandates the formation of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)  in every company. Even in workplaces where Internal Complaints Committee exists, the members are not adequately trained. According to a 2015 research study titled “Fostering Safe Workplaces“. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) showed that 36% of Indian Companies have not constituted an ICC.

The question here is, what actions need to be taken for these kinds of offences when a mandated body does not exist. The results of a study in 2015 have shown that one in three women have been sexually harassed and that 71% did not file a complaint. In Canada, one in five women who were sexually assaulted has reported the matter.

Societal pressures and consequences

Anaghya Sarpotdar an expert in this area stated that women do not report sexual harassment because employers discourage the same in order to protect their image.

She further stated that women do not file reports because the ICC is not independent. The body is a puppet in the hands of their supervisors. Often women are not aware or unsure about what constitutes sexual harassment. This is because in most workplaces there is no awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment. Furthermore, women who are powerless or are prostitutes are less likely to get justice under the law.

Further, women do not file a report because they have a fear of being fired. Also, if they consider changing their job, people are less inclined to employee these women as they were sexually harassed. Moreover, women the need to tolerate sexual harassment as they require the reference of their previous employers. Ironically, women do not file a report because she wanted to work with the person who has committed the crime.

What is sexual harassment?

In a country like India, the definition of sexual harassment varies from person to person. According to a survey conducted in a university, female students do not consider eve teasing as sexual harassment. The main reason why the perception of sexual harassment differs is due to the fact that socialization of men and women differs across the world.

Further, women do not file complaints as they fear a backlash. In most cases of sexual harassment, the women who complain end up losing their jobs.