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Still early days for women

Still early days for women

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ANITA ANAND

Since the beginning of October, Indian print, TV and social media are full of stories of women speaking out about being sexually harassed, as part of the #MeToo movement. Prominent media and entertainment personalities have been named.

The #MeToo campaign goes back to 2006, before the predominance of social media, when African American activist Tarana Burke created the campaign as a grassroots movement to reach
sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities. In 2017, it triggered a global phenomenon when actress and producer Alyssa Milano accused Hollywood’s prominent producer, Harvey Weinstein, of sexual assault.

Milano wrote, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Within days, millions of women – and some men — used Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to disclose the harassment and abuse they had faced. They included celebrities and public figures, as well as ordinary people who felt empowered to speak.

The movement became a conversation about men’s behaviour towards women and the imbalance of power at the top. Facebook reported that within 24 hours, 4.7 million people around the world engaged in the #MeToo conversation, with over 12 million posts, comments, and reactions.

In India, in response to lobbying by women’s organisations for years, in 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed. The law was a first step. However, a survey conducted by the Indian Bar Association in 2017 of 6,047 respondents showed that 70 percent of women said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors, fearing repercussions.

According to National Crime Records Bureau data, there was a 51 percent rise in sexual harassment cases at places related to work – from 469 in 2014 to 714 in 2015. Between 2014 and 2015, cases of sexual harassment within office premises more than doubled — from 57 to 119. And this probably does not consider the large number of women who work in the informal sector in agriculture, construction and other daily wage sectors where they are sexually blackmailed, just to collect their wages. Or women in small towns and non-urban areas.

It’s also financial blackmail, as women cannot afford to lose their jobs. Often, when women speak out, either to human resources departments in the workplace or to their families, they are told to put up with the sexual harassment or leave their jobs.

According to the law, an internal complaints committee (ICC) is mandatory in every private or public organisation with 10 or more employees. However, the 2015 research study, “Fostering Safe Workplaces”, by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) showed 36 percent of Indian companies and 25 percent of MNCs had not constituted their ICCs. About 50 percent of the more than 120 participating companies admitted that their ICC members were not legally trained. The law imposes a penalty of upto Rs 50,000 on employers who do not implement the Act in the workplace or fail to even constitute an ICC.

As with all laws, implementation is the challenge. And further, general confusion about what is right and wrong.

Ankhi Das, public policy director, Facebook, tweeted, “You needn’t have a #MeToo moment to support the women journalists who have narrated their victimisation. You needn’t even be a woman. You just need to have a sensibility of what is right and what is wrong.” 

And how do we get this sensibility? Are we born with it, do we acquire it? If so, how?

In India, women from an early age are socialised to please men to get ahead in life, especially men in power. Nothing in their upbringing, however, prepares them for sexual assault from men they admire or look up to or men in power. The behaviour codes for men and women in the workplace are unclear. It is assumed that men make the rules and women abide by them. It is natural that there is sexual attraction and tension, but not violence and unwanted attention. Neither men nor women are prepared for this.

The #MeToo movement is welcome and long overdue. But, the upsides and downsides will determine its future.

The upside is that the issue of sexual harassment is out in the open. Women are speaking out, freeing themselves from what they’ve held on to for years. Society is now forced to speak about the behaviour of men towards women, especially from men in power. Via social media, their concerns, often overlooked by print media, are out in public. There is solidarity among women, those who have been abused and those who have not.  And, the movement has the potential to create healthier and more balanced workplaces.

The downside is the lack of organised follow-up protection and support for women making their stories public. Legally, it can take forever to settle cases. The toll of speaking out could be as much as not speaking out. Life will not be easy for women in terms of professional work and mental health, as we have witnessed in previous cases of women speaking out. There could be a backlash from men and organisations, a reluctance to hire women and further tension and confusion about workplace etiquette.

The movement can do well to consider a focus on education and consciousness raising among girls and boys, women and men regarding the norms in common spaces inhabited by them. This will be the future. 

Anita Anand is a development and communications specialist