Posted by Monika and Akanksha
Margaret Mead, a renowned anthropologist, when asked by a student regarding the first sign of human civilisation highlighted neither the grinding of stones or use of a metal. Instead, she responds that it was the curing of a broken femur which signifies it. The curing of a broken femur, Mead argues, shows that there was somebody who helped the wounded. It demonstrates that the vulnerability in human society is approached differently and that is what makes ‘society’ possible in the first place.
COVID-19: Reflecting on the moral conditions of human interactions
The COVID-19 crisis, a biological, humanitarian, health, emotive, existential crisis, showed many examples of the same. Many people, many complete strangers, came forth to extend help which cannot be explained by any other category: emotive, psychosocial or of belongingness to an institution or a political community but only by a bond of humanity. Bonds of compassion are helping many today in sailing through the differentially afflicted hardships with hope.
Even as the acts of compassion by strangers and mere acquaintances have infused hope in our lives, for many the ‘harm’ done by the crisis was further accentuated. Innumerable cases of domestic violence and sexual harassment have been reported. The complaints received by National Commission for Women, as well as the rapid survey by Jagori titled ‘At Home, At Risk’ indicates towards the increase in cases of domestic violence during the COVID-19 lockdown. Patients and women attendants found themselves increasingly vulnerable to sexual harassment. At an individual and collective level, the spat of such incidents put a huge question mark on our claims to being a civilised society.
Incidents of sexual harassment on hospital premises
Among the shocking incidents of sexual harassment in hospital premises, one was from Bhagalpur, Bihar, where a woman was molested by a hospital staff in front of her sick mother and husband. In a video that went viral, she can be seen as narrating her experience to the media.
“A hospital attendant at Bhagalpur pulled my dupatta [scarf] and put his hand on my waist promising he will take care of my husband who was admitted at the hospital for treatment of lung infection. I kept mum as my husband and mother too were admitted in the hospital,” she was quoted in The Hindu.
The aggrieved woman found herself helpless, but requested the accused to take care of her husband. She stated that her husband was not being taken care of enough; nobody responded to his calls for water and that he was left on the soiled beds for hours. “At the Bhagalpur hospital, the doctors, while administering Remdesivir injection to my husband, wasted half of the vial on floor,” she had said.
The helplessness that characterises this asymmetrical relationship between the patient’s relatives and the hospital staff has been so paralysing that the extent of actual incidences is impossible to estimate. Some women gained the courage to speak up, to pursue it further and seek redressal while numerous others could not have. A woman attendant whose mother was in the ICU, shared that she was groped by a security personnel on the hospital premises, after days of stalking, verbal harassment and inappropriate behaviour.
Other stories of sexual harassment, reported from throughout the country, narrate a similar story of institutional apathy and brazen insensitivity. A woman, whose mother succumbed to COVID-19 at Paras Hospital, Patna alleged misconduct with the patient, by three unidentified men. In a stark reminder of the last year’s report of rape of a 19-year-old patient by an ambulance attendant in Kerala, a similar case of sexual harassment in the ambulance was reported from the same state this year too.
These incidents make one wonder if the civilisational basis of human society could ever be stable if one part of the population is not even recognised as an individual with subjectivity but only as a prey to the sexual instincts of the other. This reminds one of the imagery that Margaret Mead creates of the animal world that Ira Byok captures in a line- “You are meat for prowling beasts”.
However, this is not to subscribe to the idea that men who molest or rape are akin to non-humans/ monsters, as the patriarchal society would want us believe. To do that is to ‘depoliticise’ such violence. Rape and other acts of sexual harassment is but an extension of the same patriarchal power; rape as Susan Brownmiller argues is “a conscious tool of intimidation…” by which all men oppress and control all women.
The only point of this visual analogy is to point out how the precarity that the pandemic has brought to people’s lives has left women of our society at the mercy of the sexual predators; her survival depending on her ability to protect herself. She needs to have her ‘femur’ intact to be able to live!
The Institutional Response
The Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace act is the primary legislation that comes into play in response to sexual crimes within institutions. The act includes within its ambit hospitals and nursing homes, and private ventures carrying on health services, among others. It also gives an expansive definition of ‘aggrieved woman’, including “a woman, of any age whether employed or not, who alleges to have been subjected to any act of sexual harassment by the respondent”. Under section 4 of the act, all institutions including hospitals have constituted Internal Complaints Committees which is supposed to provide frontline response for cases of sexual violence.
Contrary to the mandate, the members of the ICCs, along with the other members of the hospital ‘fraternity’ are often reported to demonstrate a hand-in-glove experience with their accused employee. The internal enquiry’s findings at the Paras hospital that “such an incident has not happened in the premises of the hospital” rightly raises suspicion. The women victims in the above-mentioned incident at the Delhi hospital too, found the redress procedure a hoax. The hospital authorities often actively try to discourage the complainant and the witnesses from taking action, subjecting the victim to the trial, questioning and cross questioning their statements and motives.
Reflecting the ‘logic of masculinist protection’, the committee members are often found issuing speculative apologetics in favour of the accused, trying to re-dress his acts of harassment as benign attempts at assistance. Owing to the ill health of their patients and apprehensive about the consequences of antagonising the authorities, most women decide to not pursue the case.
The institutional response to sexual harassment thus leaves much to be desired on several fronts. The safeguard against false accusations and evidence is frequently invoked to discourage the victim from speaking up. The act introduces a time constraint of three months for reporting the event, (the decision to extend which lies with ICC itself) which makes it perilous for women within institutional settings and particularly hospitals for pursue justice.
ICC also, “may, before initiating an inquiry under section 11 and at the request of the aggrieved woman take steps to settle the matter between her and the respondent through conciliation”. It is often found that the suggestion of conciliation, in intent and effect, amounts to an over-bearing pressure on the woman to withdraw the case in the interest of her or her patient’s health. It is perhaps in cognisance of these observation that National Commission for Women, in its review of the act recommended the removal of the conciliation clause from its provisions, as well as extending the limit of three months for filing the complaint to six months. It is time we reinitiate the debate on the NCW suggestions as well as other measures against gender-based violence, particularly in the light of the heightened vulnerability that women face today. As we battle with one pandemic, we cannot let our efforts against the endemic problems of our society stall.
- Brownmiller, Susan (1975). Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Fawcett.
- Know why National Commission for Women sought removal of ‘Conciliation’ from Sexual Harrassment Law. 27 December 2019. https://www.latestlaws.com/latest-news/national-commission-for-women-sought-removal-of-conciliation-from-sexual-harrassment-law/.
- Young, I. M. (2003). The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on theCurrent Security State. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 29(1), 1-25.
Akanksha and Monika are Research Scholars at Center for Political Studies, JNU. Their research interests include gender and sexuality, sexual violence and law, political philosophy and political economy.
Image Credit: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India