The woman’s boss kept asking her to attend parties with him, saying she needed to be more social. After a few refusals, work opportunities began passing her by, from promotions to special training.
She complained, initially to a woman’s advocacy group, then internally to human resources. The company’s solution was to transfer her to another department.
The scenario, which unfolded recently at a bank that operates across the world, was disclosed to me this week under condition of anonymity for all parties involved.
Separately, I was told about another man, a well-known government employee, who forces his maid to regularly have sexual intercourse with him. She acquiesces as she needs the job, plus he pays her to remain quiet. The other servants who know also receive hush money—so it’s sickeningly profitable to everyone involved.
Both situations qualify as cases of sexual harassment, with the second bordering on a type of torture. Yet, under a Bill likely to come before Parliament in the winter session, only the first employer would face prosecution.
In these times of plenty that celebrate India’s economic boom and the advancement of women under globalization, it’s worth remembering that progress limits itself to a tiny, tiny portion of the female workforce. And it will as long as people like us keep advocating for, well, people like us.
A Bill outlawing sexual harassment in the workplace has been making the rounds in various iterations for years, buoyed by the 1997 landmark case, Visakha v. Rajasthan. In the absence of legislation protecting women’s work, the Supreme Court laid out guidelines to form committees in workplaces to field and review complaints. Very few employers have done so, and those with a policy rarely act on complaints through the committees; more common is to separate the victim and harasser.
Thus, forcing companies to enact policies and threatening culprits with punishment is necessary to fix an unacceptable state of workplace affairs —quite literally. Still, women’s advocates say they don’t expect the government will approve extending protections to the informal sector. Government officials say they wonder how to enforce such a law and if they have the right to legislate people’s homes. (Funny how they don’t fear my wrath when they tell me how many metres my balcony must be.)
The anticipated reticence essentially strips most women of their right to earn a living without fear of harassment. An estimated 93% of the total workforce in the country is dubbed part of the “unorganized” economy —which really means they get paid in cash and receive few benefits—and more than half of them are women. Contrast that to the services sector, where women comprise somewhere between 25% and 30%.
“We want it to be more inclusive,” said N. Hamsa, executive director of Women Power Connect, a Delhi-based women’s lobbying group.
Some might say change should begin with the formal sectors, and then trickle down. But this is a case where the smaller numbers of women employed in the organized sector minimize their clout. Why else has a decade passed since the court order? Why else does Parliament roll the issue from one session to the next?
Sadly, even human resources managers for the white-collar set confess that when faced with sexual harassment cases, more often women are the ones who end up being “punished” through transfers or new jobs.
“It’s always the women who just decide to move away from the current situation. Ironically, the reality is that even if they were to confront the situation and escalate it, all she would get is a few glares, laughs, questions,” said Jyotika Dhawan, director of human resources firm Helix-HR. “At best some admiration from other female colleagues… but never justice.”
If educated, well-paid women are having such a tough time finding support—against the colleague who comments on low-cut blouses or the one with pornography as a screensaver —imagine the conditions for those who work in factories, construction sites and in our homes. Who will speak up for their rights?
It is often said we are living in two Indias, with opposite agendas—diabetes versus malnutrition, for example —women, however, are living the same reality. The sexual harassment Bill has the unique opportunity to unite them and make a powerful statement about the type of conditions under which women will toil—and will not. There can be a trade-off here —our voices for their numbers.
After all, they may be unorganized. We are not.
Already, it might be too late for the women I began by telling you about: The first quickly got herself another job at another bank. The maid, meanwhile, remains with the same employer, who continues to have his way.
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