With the pandemic still looming large, internships too have shifted to adopt the work-from-home approach which has put forward its unique set of challenges for women. Interactions with employers and colleagues have now moved to various messaging applications and other social media platforms. The predatory practices of exploitative men have also evolved and adapted to this new set up as they have resorted to sending unsolicited, inappropriate messages to their colleagues and especially their interns who are already in a vulnerable position considering the power dynamics between them.
The women in India have steadily been paving paths for themselves as dedicated members of the workforce despite a plethora of setbacks. Sexual harassment at workplace adds another layer to the endless list of challenges that restrict women from assimilating themselves in work spaces which are already, largely male dominated. It sometimes acts as an inevitable calamity targeted at women who break free from the patriarchal, sexist gender roles assigned to them by the society.
With the pandemic at play, internships have shifted to adopt the work from home approach which have put forward its unique set of challenges for women. Interactions with employers and colleagues have now moved to various messaging applications and other social media platforms. The predatory practices of exploitative men have also evolved and adapted to this new set up as they have resorted to sending unsolicited and inappropriate messages to their colleagues and especially their interns who are already in a vulnerable position considering the power dynamics between them.
Many well-wishers have advised interns to conduct background checks and exercise caution in choosing their internships in the light of a few legal interns calling out their mentors for sexual harassment. Such advice, though sometimes well intentioned, adds to the victim blaming culture prevalent in all cases of sexual violence against women. The problem with placing such unnecessary and excessive burden on the interns in selecting internships judiciously deviates focus from the wrongdoers, while blaming the victims for failing to act with due diligence. It also indirectly reduces the obligation on the employer to provide a safe working space for all employees and fails to hold to the predator accountable.
Lack of Access to Adequate Justice
One of the biggest challenges faced by women who are subjected sexual harassment is the lack of access to adequate justice on reporting instances of harassment. The Supreme Court of India, in 1997 issued guidelines to address sexual harassment at workplace which was followed by the passing of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH). While the law deserves accolades for attempting to protect women against sexual harassment at workplace, it is plagued with both substantive and procedural uncertainties leading to its implementation being less than satisfactory.
POSH mandates institutions to provide a safe working environment by forming an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), displaying the penal consequences of sexual harassment in a conspicuous light in the workplace, and sensitising employers and employees to such occurrences. However, most institutions fail to comply with any of the directions of the Act.
The fear of defamation
Another hurdle faced by women who share their testimonies of being subjected to sexual harassment is that powerful men often use the defamation law as a weapon to silence and further deter women from speaking out about their experiences.
Priya Ramani, eminent journalist, had called out M J Akbar, a celebrated journalist and a politician for alleged sexual harassment in 2018. As a result, Akbar filed a defamation case against her. The Delhi District Court, on February 17, 2021, in its path breaking judgement acquitted Ramani by accepting the testimony as spoken by Ramani a valid defense to defamation. The court held that women ought not to be punished for raising their voice against sexual abuse even if they choose to speak about it after decades. The court also acknowledged the failure of institutional remedial systems in protecting women who have consequentially resorted to sharing their experiences on various media and social media platforms.
This judgement is laudable since it attempts to transform the conversation about sexual harassment by being sensitive towards the trauma faced by the victims. While this judgement surely reduces one among many challenges faced by women on reporting instances of sexual abuse, many other structural and societal changes are required to be made to ensure that work spaces are safe for women.
The Problematic Legacy of Ranjan Gogoi
In April 2019, a young woman who had worked in the capacity of a Junior Court Assistant filed a case of sexual harassment against the then Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi wherein she requested an inquiry into the sexual abuse she faced at the hands of Gogoi and the subsequent vindictiveness targeted towards her family members who were suspended from their government posts.
Nemo judex in causa sua, a Latin phrase which means that no person can be a judge in his own cause is the cornerstone of the principles of natural justice to be followed in all judicial procedures. Gogoi brazenly showed no regard for this principle of natural justice by constituting and presiding over the bench that delved into the allegations of sexual harassment against him. In light of a widespread public outcry against such violation of the general principles of law, Gogoi directed Justice Bobde to set up an ad-hoc in-house panel to deal with the allegations of the victim. The panel headed by Bobde, who succeeded Gogoi as the Chief Justice of India found the woman’s allegations of sexual harassment baseless. Further, the other findings of the panel were kept confidential which is again, against the principles of natural justice.
The institutional and procedural failures in conducting a fair trial of the allegations of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice of the country massively debilitates women empowerment and the progress made by women making inroads into a hitherto male dominated workspace. In the light of such serious a failing of the Apex Court, the loud and clear message sent to all victims of sexual harassment is that their abusers, if powerful would be left scot-free.
Societal And Psychological Hurdles
One of the other problems faced by women who are victims of sexual harassment is that the Indian society considers this an insignificant subject. While the country is ‘enraged and appalled‘ each time a rape case makes headlines as witnessed in the December 2012 rape case, the outcry dies down once the courts make judgments that seem to have temporarily satisfied the collective conscience of the community. (At this juncture, the author also wishes to clarify that the author firmly believes that capital punishment is gruesome and serves no purpose of retribution or deterrence.)
Most women who are subjected to sexual harassment go through mental trauma and stress. Women who continue to showcase a facade of normalcy and strength are often questioned or disbelieved. Those who choose to go public with their testimonies of sexual harassment face scrutiny and victim blaming at multiple levels. Many women choose to refrain from reporting or going public with their testimonies due to the fear of both professional and personal backlash. The lack of a satisfactory redressal mechanism, the societal trend of disbelieving the victim and the stigma attached to sexual harassment are other reasons why many instances of harassment go unreported. It becomes pertinent to note that women who belong to lower middle class backgrounds, the unorganised sector, Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and queer community rarely ever come forward with their testimonies of sexual harassment since they are unfairly subjected to additional set of challenges on account of their marginalised socio-economic backgrounds.
The Way Forward
Specifically in terms of sexual harassment of women at workplace, mandatory sensitisation of all employees is a crucial next step towards reducing instances of such abuse. Employer should create an environment sensitive to the grievances of women, by treating victims fairly after she reports her story and by providing adequate support in the form of counselling. That apart, conducting fair and impartial inquiry is essential in creating an environment where survivors feel comfortable in sharing their stories. Those investigating instances of sexual harassment should bear in mind that harassers in most instances, are in a position of authority, thereby making the position of the survivor all the more vulnerable. Ensuring that the accused is held accountable would also play a significant part in deterring the occurrence of such unfortunate events in the future. Lastly, affirmatively recruiting and retaining women employees proportionate to the workforce can also give impetus to the trend of women being considered as important members of the workforce and lead to workplaces being safer for them.
The prevalence of sexual violence against women is premised on the assumption that men have authority over the woman’s body and her choices. Deep-rooted patriarchal, sexist, classist and casteist norms continue to find widespread acceptance in our Indian society. The existence of men who sexually harass women and subject women to other forms of gender-based violence is only reflective of the fact that we as a society have failed in setting our standards of acceptable practices. There is an urgent need to address this problem by actively working towards changing our mindsets and building a society that thrives on equality and respect for the dignity of women of all communities.
Reigha is a lawyer, born in Darjeeling. She enjoys reading and walking in the woods. She can be found on Twitter.
Featured image source: Shreya Tingal/Feminism In India