A fusillade of #MeToo allegations of sexual harassment against senior figures in the media and entertainment industry in India over the past week highlights a largely unstated and important contributory factor—the complete absence of punishment.
A spate of complaints by female journalists and film industry professionals, mostly on social media sites such as Twitter but also in television interviews, has galvanized the Indian movement against sexual harassment and violence.
The men against whom such allegations have been made include junior foreign minister M.J. Akbar, who was a well-known newspaper editor before joining politics, and Hindi movie actors Nana Patekar and Alok Nath.
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Nath’s wife and Akbar have filed defamation cases against the women who have made the allegations.
The #MeToo movement in India isn’t new: in 2017, Raya Sarkar, a young law student, made public a list of well-known Indian academics whom she accused of similar predatory behaviour.
It was an unplanned, crowd-sourced list that she compiled by encouraging women to come out with their experiences of sexual violence on the campus and name names.
The list was controversial because it named men on the basis of complaints alone, a reason it was condemned even by some women’s rights activists.
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The recent explosion of allegations clearly has its roots in two things (there are many reasons, but these are among the most important):
1. India is a deeply patriarchal society where women, particularly young women and girls, are kept under tight control in both rural and urban settings, discouraging them from opening up about sexual abuse at home or at work.
2. An unresponsive law-and-order mechanism inhibits women from filing complaints at work or with the police. Even for as serious a crime as rape, a police officer will often advice the victim to withdraw her complaint and instead strike a “compromise" with the rapist.
Sexual offence, including its most extreme form, rape, in India is widespread. There is increasing society-wide awareness of the need to confront sexual violence against women after the internationally notorious gang rape, torture and killing of a young women inside a moving bus in Delhi in 2012.
Yet the number of registered cases of sexual harassment at the workplace rose by 54% from 2014 to 2017, according to data presented in Lok Sabha in July this year.
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This may be the result of more women stepping up to report sexual harassment; but even so, the number of women who actually report such behaviour is very small.
As many as 70% women said they did not report sexual harassment by superiors because they feared the repercussions, according to a survey of harassment at workplace conducted by the Indian Bar Association in 2017.
One particular problem is that the range of extremely violent crimes against women is large and the official categories are unbelievably foul—acid attacks, ‘deaths caused by acts done with intent to cause miscarriage’, cruelty by husband or his relatives, dowry deaths, abetment of suicide of women, causing miscarriage without women’s consent, human trafficking, besides rape and gang rape.
This means sexual harassment at the workplace can fall lower down the priority of patriarchal police forces. Yet, it is undoubtedly a growing problem.
Sexual harassment is classed by the government under the broad category of ‘assault on women to intent to outrage her modesty’.
This broad category also includes ‘assault or use of criminal force to women with intent to disrobe’, plain ‘insult to modesty’, voyeurism and stalking. So, clearly, the definition is pretty comprehensive—as indeed are the specific provisions with regard to sexual assault at the workplace.
But it makes little sense to isolate sexual harassment at the workplace from other gender-related crimes. And when all crimes against women are taken together, according to the home ministry’s records, they numbered 338,954 in 2016, roughly the same as in 2014, with a tiny dip in 2015.
As far as sexual assault goes, there were around 27,500 reported cases in 2016 alone. That’s 75 cases a day of those that are reported. But if this number constitutes the mere 30% of women who do report sexual assault (whether in the workplace or not we don’t know here), then we are talking of around 70,000 women who do not report such crimes against them.
A very rough back-of-the-envelope figure of 100,000 sexual assaults a year—or 275 cases every single day—should be unacceptable in any society.
And even this figure is very conservative, if one takes into account an article in Mint, which said 99% of sexual assaults (all sexual assaults, not just in the workplace) in India go unreported.
Even if one discounts marital rape, the number is as high as 85% unreported.
Moreover, while the overall rate of conviction in the country was 46.2% in 2016, it was only around 20% in cases of crimes against women.
Smita Chakraburtty, a researcher of prison systems and honorary prison commissioner, Rajasthan, in a recent Facebook post said, “For all the people who are speaking of criminal proceedings, evidence against harassers, due process (though I’m an absolute supporter of due process): I have visited over 200 prisons in the country and have met over 40,000 prisoners till now (on record), across a few states. Yet I have never met a prisoner who was in prison for sexual harassment charges."
“Also, I’ve hardly ever met a powerful man in prison for sexual harassment charges... Met prisoners with rape, murder, rape and murder, or dowry death charges only. That, too, hardly any of these prisoners come from even middle class backgrounds, forget about business families, etc."
In a recent interview with Washington Post recounting her initiative, Raya Sarkar said, “I wish that women in the future don’t have to go through this abuse anymore, which is our goal—to build a community where people respect each other and don’t see another person as property or a piece of meat and instead see them as a human being."
The time for that is long overdue in India, but it’s not likely to happen anytime soon if statistics are any guide.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1