Indecent proposal

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Indecent proposal

Sunday, 01 December 2013 | Deebashree Mohanty

Indecent proposal

  • Controversy over Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (SHW) by the senior manager of Infosys, by the chairman and managing director of NAlCO, the Medha Kotwal petition on SHW of a PhD student by her guide in Vadodara, complaints against a senior professor at lucknow University and complaints about SHW by actress Sushmita Sen against the CEO of Coca-Cola have all alerted employers that immediate action needs to be taken but most private companies refrain from investing in Complaint Committees. Deebashree Mohanty tells you how only 2 per cent of organisations in India actually conform to the 1997 Vishakha guidelines passed by the Supreme Court
  • ‘Go down on my knees or forget an increment for the third time — General Manager of a popular five star hotel chain to his 33 year-old floor manager, Deepa Joshi (name changed). A graduate from New York Culinary Institute, Joshi had been with this reputed chain for four years before her GM started making demands for sexual favours. A single mother of a three-year-old daughter, Joshi didn’t know where to go if she resigned from this position. In October 13, 2013, however, she decided she had had enough when her boss wanted her to unhook the button of her shirt during a private meeting discussing the way forward for New Year celebrations. But her application for a job was rejected by all top hotels in New Delhi. Finally, after a month-long search, Joshi had to settle for a four star property in the Bangalore-Mysore highway with a paycut of 40 per cent. Her daughter lives with her ageing maternal grandparents. The ‘boss’ meanwhile, has acquired another property in Dubai.
  • Geeta Sikha (name changed) is a renowned copywriter who has penned many lines for brands such as HUl, JK Tyre, Honda etc. In early 2008, she complained to the owner of her advertising agency that her supervisor had made an obscene pass at her during one of the edit meetings. She was asked to ‘keep quiet’ about this incident. Sikha decided to give her boss another chance. In July 2012, she stopped coming without giving any notice. In November, her husband, a fashion designer, filed an official complaint at the Udyog Vihar police station that his wife had been repeatedly raped and kept hostage for three days by her supervisor. According to the FIR dated July 2, 2012, Sikha was raped number of times, sometimes made to perform unnatural sex in her office for three days (June 26-28th) by her boss. Her boss had threatened her that he would release their encounter in a porn clip if she spoke to anyone about the incident.
  • It was 27-year-old Anita Jain’s (name changed) first job with a public relations firm headquartered in Mumbai. Jain was doing well for herself and with the help of her mentor managed to reach a six figure salary in just one year. In May 2013, Jain was forced to resign by her mentor. Jain had filed a complaint with a local committee against her mentor demanding that he be sacked permanently.  Her boss wanted Jain to accompany him to a trip to Australia in January 2013. When she refused his advances her mentor used to harass her in many ways.

 

A latest survey by Disha, an NGO that deals with Sexual Harassment at the Workplace  (SHW) complaints, throws up some worrying statistics: 80 per cent of respondents revealed that Sexual Harassment at the Workplace exists, 49 per cent had encountered SHW,  53 per cent women and men did not have equal opportunities, 53 per cent were treated unfairly by supervisors, employers and co-workers, 58 per cent had not heard of the Supreme Court’s directive of 1997, and only two per cent of organisations had implemented the Vishakha guidelines.

“All sorts of nefarious activities take place in one’s workplace and it often goes unnoticed. Many times women shake off an indecent remark as a joke but that could send the wrong signal to people in power. Next time these very people will try to hold you with a grappling hook. So, what is it that you must brush aside and what mannerisms should you report and to whom is the big question all women employees are asking today. It is unfortunate that you find that the place where you spend more than eight hours daily is unsafe,” director Sudhir Mishra says. Mishra tells you that his latest outing at the Box Office, Inkaar, based on office abuse was based on a true story. “Many women friends and colleagues have told me that sexual advances at the office are commonplace. It is considered regular if your senior hugs and plants a kiss on your cheek to congratulate you. Some say they even have to tolerate their seniors feeling the strap of their undergarments,” Mishra says, adding that casting couch problems happen across all industries.

The modus operandi is quite simple — pick up the most docile employee, share a dirty joke, pass some lewd comments, get fresh with her in the office premises then take her home. What follows usually is blackmail or just a threat urging the employee to keep the happenings to herself in exchange of some promotion or an increment. “With due respect to the Vishakha guidelines, I feel that the line between harassment and having fun at workplace is  blurred. Men don’t know where to draw the line and some women enjoy the kind of attention being showered on them. In such a situation it becomes difficult for the victim to come out in the open and share her problems. Many married women have disclosed in their counselling sessions that they have been violated many times but they thought it was ‘cool’ because their friends did not make anything out of an obscene gesture. But once they ignored that little step things just got worse. Many times leading women to resign from her job,” Nandini Thakur, psychiatrist NIMHANS, says.

According to Thakur there are many cases that will come to surface with the Tehelka controversy heating up. “You will be surprised that one in every 10 women with mental health problems have suffered from abuse at workplace. Seventy per cent have been tormented by their immediate mentors and bosses while 10 per cent have been molested by fellow colleagues. Another five per cent have been abused by the owners and chairpersons. Then there are 15 per cent who have been abused at the hands of senior people not related to their departments,” Thakur gives you a breakdown of the cases that visit her ward.

Bharat, one of the founder members of Vishakha since 1991, says that this kind of an abuse is prevalent in district and block level too, it is the urban populace that has shown courage and stood against sexual exploitation. “Typically, sexual abuse at the workplace at any level is not uncommon but women have found it difficult to confide in a committee and to lodge a formal complaint. They feel a complaint of this nature will only damage their position at office, may disrupt domestic relationships and are scared that their character will also be questioned.  They don’t have the courage to stand against all these odds. That is the primary reason why some men think they can get away with anything at the office. This mode of thinking needs to change and the Tehelka case could be an eye opener,” he says.

The most staggering fact remains that even though the Vishakha guidelines was passed by the Supreme Court in 1997, there are very few offices that follow the guidelines. Only two-three per cent of MNC’s operating in New Delhi and Bangalore have a committee within the office. Only one per cent of publishing and media houses have provisions of a committee against sexual exploitation. Five per cent of banks and Government organisations have a special cell that looks into women employees related problems. Rest of the companies have little idea about the recommendations. “The need of the hour is to spread awareness. There is a very strict law in place which has been recognised by the highest authority in the country but people fail to make maximum utilisation of it,” Bharat tells you from Rajasthan.

But there is still some hope. According to Bharat, in offices where there is no provision for a committee, the victim can directly approach a local body with her complaint against the perpetrator. The committee follows a fixed routine — an inquiry against the person/s mentioned by the victim is conducted. There is also a background check on the victim. If the person is found guilty of sexual assault then the committee makes its recommendations to the office. “The recommendations usually are in accordance to the nature of the ‘abuse’. Mostly there is demand for termination, transfer, full paid leave for the victim for a period of six months during which time she will look for a switch in jobs etc. But if the abuse is criminal in nature (like rape, blackmail, held captive) then the committee refers this matter to the police and immediate action is taken,” Bharat explains the workings of the group.

Before 1997, women experiencing SHW had to lodge a complaint under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code that deals with the ‘criminal assault of women to outrage women’s modesty, and Section 509 that punishes an individual/individuals for using a ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman. These sections left the interpretation of ‘outraging women’s modesty’ to the discretion of the police officer.

Poornima Taneja (name changed) had undergone counselling at a premier institution for mental health and wellness in New Delhi. Taneja was handed a letter of termination that branded her as ‘characterless’ and a ‘non-performer’ by her IT firm in Gurgaon. A senior consultant with this organisation, Taneja (a BITS Pilani passout) was twice awarded with a global recognition certificate for excellence in her department. But everything changed in a trip to New York in 2011 where she was asked to share a room with the managing director of the company. Taneja refused to oblige.

The next day she was insulted at the board meeting and her return ticket to New Delhi was also cancelled. She paid for her trip back home and took up the matter with her department head who promised to look into the matter seriously. The matter was resolved and the MD personally apologised to her. Taneja was then called for an official party at the MD’s Chattarpur farmhouse. There she was jointly molested by her HOD and MD for hours. Hurt and angry, Taneja went home. The other day rumours were rife in her office that Taneja was ‘sleeping around’ with the MD and that his wife was not pleased at this development. Not knowing where to go to file a complaint, Taneja met the MD’s wife and explained the situation to her. But there too she was met with indignation. There were problems at her home front too. Her in-laws distanced themselves from Taneja and her husband preferred to stay away from home.

She braved all the humiliation at office and kept sending emails to other seniors in the company apprising them of what had truly transpired. She even wrote to the Korean owner requesting him to intervene and help her to restore her pride within the organisation. The next day she was handed a termination letter.

“She was traumatised by the loose talk in the office. She was embarrassed to face her husband who was not supportive of her. It took her a few months to recover from that phase.  At present, she is happy with work-from-home assignments,” Thakur tells you.

There are many like Taneja who bear the brunt of an official complaint in which they are made reverse victims. “The main concern with women is that they have no idea what can be termed as a sexual abuse. If there is a senior colleague or a boss or even a mentor who wants to get physical by promising you something in return that is your cue that all is not well. As soon as there is a certain favour attached to a gift, you must learn to recognise it. leaving the job is not always the best solution because harassment can happen in any form,” Vrinda Jain, Women’s Rights activist and High Court lawyer, says.

Jain has dealt with many cases where the woman has complained of sexual abuse at workplace and has been rewarded with hefty compensation.  “In June 2012, 27-year-old Sahiba Kaur (name changed) was sent a text message by her department head (the company is a market leader in consumer electronics in India) asking her to ‘come over for some fun’. He also SMSed how much he ‘missed a woman’s company’ and ‘all that I could do for you’. Kaur dismissed these messages and continued with her work. later that month she was forced into her senior’s car where he started getting close. Kaur raised an alarm and managed to escape. The other day there was another offer — ‘marry me please. I will divorce my wife. We were not meant to be with each other’. Since he was getting more and more persuasive, Kaur decided to speak with him in private and sort out matters. But things got out of hand in the meeting room and the senior forced himself on Kaur, kissing her on her lips and cheek while she resisted. Kaur filed an official complaint and demanded a compensation of Rs 20 lakh for the torture and the embarrassment he caused her. The case was decided in her favour,” Jain tells you.

But is there a way  to tell bogus complaints from genuine onesIJ “The committee treats each and every case according to its merits. The inquiry doesn’t happen overnight. It is a thorough investigation. In all cases we are looking at how a certain step/judgement will impact the woman at her workplace. If the committee feels there is need to take action they will submit their recommendations, else just a warning is enough,” Bharat concludes.

 

Rule book

  • The Vishakha guidelines define sexual harassment including unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as: Physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical conduct of sexual nature
  • The guidelines say that: “It shall be the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts by taking all steps required
  •  The guidelines also lay down a grievance redressal mechanism that mandates all companies, in the public or private sector, to set up Complaints Committee within the organisation to look into such offences
  • The Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its member should be women. To prevent the possibility of any undue pressure or influence from senior levels, such Complaints Committee should involve a third party, either NGO or other body

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