Sexual harassment is not limited to the workplace. Indeed, the workplace only reflects real life — the hierarchies and power balances that exist in the ‘outside’ world.
High-profile cases that get a lot of coverage in the media sometimes have a positive impact in drawing attention to issues that are otherwise ignored. The recent sexual harassment suit against well-known publishing personality David Davidar in Penguin Canada has raised considerable discussion around the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace in India. Much of the discussion has focussed on exactly how sexual harassment can be defined, and whether or not the law is adequate to deal with the problem. But the issue is broader than that. What lies at the heart of this matter is simply this: how can workplaces be made secure and comfortable for people who inhabit them?
A second question then follows: can workplaces be made secure when, broadly speaking, life is so insecure for half the citizens of this country — its women. Violence, harassment and assault are daily features of the lives of most women in India; can we then expect that the workplace, where men and, increasingly, women interact and are in close proximity for the better part of the day, be magically immune from such dangers? Most workplaces, even today, tend to be male-dominated, and in that they repeat the patriarchal patterns of society, and women, by and large occupy subordinate positions. This power imbalance makes the situation worse and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for women to complain.
In India, partly because women have not been present in large numbers in the formal workplace — this is changing now — sexual harassment has not been much of an issue. Ironically, it was a case of a much more widespread and almost ‘naturalised’ sexual harassment, that of women in the informal sector (in this case, the rape of Bhanwri Devi, a worker in a women’s development programme), that galvanised women’s groups into petitioning the courts, and resulted in the Supreme Court issuing guidelines aimed at helping workplaces deal with sexual harassment. The Vishakha guidelines, as they came to be known, are set to be tabled before Parliament sooner or later, and to become law.
Not all organisations have adopted these guidelines, although it is incumbent on them to do so. But since they were put in place organisations large and small have begun to think how to address this serious and complex issue. Serious, because sustained sexual harassment — verbal, physical or mental — can badly affect the work of the person concerned, and can vitiate the work environment around her. Complex, because workplaces are where men and women work together, and are also where relationships often form; keeping an eagle eye on these relationships to determine whether they are ‘consensual’ or ‘coercive’ is not the most desirable thing.
Perhaps this is why it is important to focus on awareness-raising and prevention, rather than only on remedial measures. Many organisations work hard to create an open and egalitarian workplace, where every individual can feel comfortable. Others go beyond this and hold workshops that sensitise staff and employers to what sexual harassment is, and what its consequences can be. Still others have counsellors, anonymous helplines, and ‘safe’ ways in which employees can file complaints. And some recognise the complications that can arise from relationships formed at the workplace and encourage people to be open about them, as far as possible. All of these approaches help to address the problem, although they may not be enough to solve it.
This is because the problem is larger than the workplace. Indeed the workplace only reflects what real life has to offer — the hierarchies and power balances that exist in the ‘outside’ world, where women remain silent about so much. In fact, the question is often asked: don’t women harass too? And the short answer to that is no, because, no matter that there may be the rare case of a woman boss harassing a male employee (and we have not even begun to talk of sexual minorities in the workplace), but women simply do not have the social sanction for exercising power that men do, and therefore they cannot be held guilty of harassment.
In the end, workplaces can only be safe if society and social interactions are safe and respectful, and if individuals recognise the right to dignity and humanity of all human beings, regardless of who they are and where they are coming from.
(Urvashi Butalia is a writer and director of Zubaan, a New Delhi-based publishing house)