sexual harassment at workplace needs sensitivity not sensationalism

MUMBAI: “A depressingly large number of people have outdated notions of modesty and judge a case by the status, dressing style and personal history of the complainant instead of the details of the complaint she files against a co-worker,” Prof. Asha Bajpai, Centre for Socio Legal Studies and Human Rights, Tata Institute of Social Sciences said at the National Seminar on Addressing Sexual Harassment in Educational Institutions.

Organised by University Women Development Cell and Ramniranjan Jhunjhunwala College the seminar saw experts discuss the challenges in dealing with cases of sexual harassment and their remedies. “When educated people, who are in position of power, ask women to ‘dress better for their own safety’ a very negative signal is sent to the world. Instead of defining what is sexual harassment we find that people discuss if the victim has the moral grounds to complain.”Prof Bajpai said.

There are no law as yet on sexual harassment at the workplace and the Supreme Court guidelines are very broad hence they get interpreted in many ways. Justice (Retd.) Sujata Manohar, Supreme Court of India, stated that while the constitution allowed no specific law to guard against sexual harassment, there are many laws which ensure that women have the right to education and employment. “Any physical contact or advances, demand or request for sexual favours, remarks, pornography or any unwelcomed conduct falls under Sexual harassment if it causes trauma, humiliation, health problems, and stress or jeopardises the safety of a women,” she said.

Emphasising on the need to be sensitive towards every case, said Dr. Trupti Shah, from Sahiyar Stree Sangathan, Baroda said that each case of sexual harassment comes with its own set of complicated issues from power differentials based on institutional hierarchy, different class/caste/religious backgrounds, from rural or urban backgrounds, from different cultural locations. “There are myths that sexual harassment is rare and the no of such cases are exaggerated; fact is that most women do not report a case. We deal with the problems of lack of confidentiality of the victim and the long legal battle usually humiliates the victim by asking her to relive her complaint again and again. Fear of public humiliation and lack of hope in getting any justice completely dissuades the victims to pursue the matter which is why very few women make a formal protest,” she added.

Dr. Kamaxi Bhate, who heads the anti sexual harassment cell of Experiences of KEM Hospital, said that institutions need to announce that they have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment.  “Unfortunately sexual harassment is often seen as social humour or innocent flirtation instead of a punishable offence. Sometimes the mechanisms have not been initiated in institutions and at times there has been very strong resistance or indifference to it. We need to have mechanisms that work objectively to separate misunderstood signals from acts of harassment, “she added.

In the last three years, the sexual harassment committee run by the women’s development cell of Mumbai University has received 14 complaints, three are still underway and out of the remaining, most have been either categorized as resolved, dismissed or not a case of sexual harassment without punishing the guilty. “We have made recommendations in many cases that have brought justice to the victim, however many students do not wish to pursue the matter after they graduate… the numbers do not make any difference because the task of the cell is not just to address the cases but also to create awareness and do preventive actions,”Kranti Jejurkar, head of cell said.

Dr. Trupti Shah, from Sahiyar Stree Sangathan, Baroda shared her difficulties in setting up committees to deal with sexual harassment in educational institutions, “Despite clear directives governments set up dummy committees of people handpicked by the head of an institutions, often only on paper. There are no meetings and no complaints (if any are received) are discussed or solved.”(Eom)

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