SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT WORKPLACES - ATTITUDE CHANGE REQUIRED
It was a superb evening with discussions about relevant challenges in today's world.
The first speaker of the day was Ms. Kalpana Chakravarthy, part of non-profit organisations CIEDS and Vimochana for three decades. She was actively involved in violence against women and women's’ rights.
History of Sexual Harassment Act and Vishaka Guidelines are the precursors of #MeToo Movement which had gained tempo in recent times. December 10th is Human Rights Day and it is the appropriate date to talk about sexual harassment at work places as it involves half of the society. This act says that women should work with freedom and without any fear in any field of work. The society unfortunately continues to curb the freedom which we see in various spheres of life.
The incident which triggered this movement was the life of Bhanwari Devi who belonged to a low caste community in village Bhateri, Rajasthan. The village was dominated by the Gurjar Community (upper cast). Bhanvari Devi was married at a very early age (5-6 years) to Mohan who was 8-9 years old. Child marriage is still prevalent in many parts of India though it is a criminal offence. In 1985, Bhanwari joined the Government and helped in issues related to land, water, electricity, health, public distribution system, minimum wages, etc., All the while she had the support of the village. In 1992, the Government brought a ban on child marriage and Bhanwari prevented a 9 month old child from being married off. The angered villagers were against this move and five men from the Gurjar community raped her.
Though an FIR was filed, the case was treated with skepticism and indifference and was quashed. She was ostracized by her own community. Lawyers and women activists filed a case on Bhanwari Devi’s behalf that she was raped because of her work. This is how “Vishaka Guidelines” came into existence. The judgement offered in 1997 is a legal victory for women.
It is now two decades and we still hear so many cases of sexual harassment. This is because men do not understand the word “NO” from a woman. For this we have to understand what is cultural violence. It starts even when the woman is in the womb of her mother (female foeticide). She is taught how to sit, behave and hide her feelings by patriarchal society. She is always made to feel as a second class citizen and if anything goes wrong, men and even some women blame it on her behaviour. Hence any number of laws cannot help unless society changes their attitude towards cultural violence. Sexual harassment in workplaces is very subtle and there are no witnesses to prove the cases.
The second speaker was Ms. Shakun Mohini who spoke about the #MeToo movement. Ms. Mohini works with street workers and the unorganised sectors, especially the garment industry employees. She has also been on the sexual harassment committee in the IT Industry and academia.
This movement is special because it is the voice of women against powerful men. It is indirectly questioning power – that is truth to power. Men and women should learn and teach their children the importance of consent in a relationship.
There are many committees to address this problem. But all they could do is to complain to the management to take action. Legal justice is a long drawn process and expensive. But social justice could be got by the #MeToo movement. It is a very sorry state for women all over the world who need so many laws to lead a normal and dignified life which is theirs by right.
Rtn. Sangamitra Gopal.