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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Sexual offences cannot be swept under the mat

It has taken four months of protests, the formation of a committee and the filing of a case in the Supreme Court for the Delhi Police to register two first information reports (FIRs) against the head of the Wrestling Federation of India. Seven women wrestlers, one of them a minor and many of them highly decorated sportspersons, have accused the federation’s boss of sexual harassment and exploitation. The wrangle over the registration of an FIR, which is just the first step of recording the possibility of a crime having occurred, evasive rings run around this likelihood by the government, and attempts to shame the victims for ‘indiscipline’ are textbook responses to workplace sexual harassment, all of which make reporting cases an uphill task.

Delay, shame and silence are among the tools deployed by patriarchal societies and institutions to keep complaints of sexual harassment under wraps. Time and again, in anecdotes, reports and studies, it emerges that women who try reporting it are told that their experiences did not amount to harassment, that women before them had faced the same and worse, that they shouldn’t ‘draw attention’ to themselves, that they should just ‘resolve things quietly,’ or that they should not be ‘troublemakers.’ We are all complicit in this silencing of victims, which creates a safe haven for perpetrators. It is highly improbable that these sportspersons, some of them minor, did not complain about harassment and abuse before it hit headlines. They were probably not listened to. And now, they are out in a public space, trying to draw attention to themselves—which in India is largely seen as too brazen a thing for women to do. Women are supposed to ‘adjust’ and ‘bear with it’, not go public asking for justice.

There is always a tipping point, a point when outrage, sorrow and disillusionment combine and boil over to force people out of inertia into action. Speaking about sexual harassment is never easy because victims are shamed, and having to re-live the violence while going through the judicial paces is traumatic. To speak out publicly, therefore, is even harder. In some ways, this protest is similar to a 2004 protest by eight women in Manipur who disrobed outside Kangla Fort in Imphal to protest the brutal killing of Manorama Thangjam after she was detained by the Army. Circumstances may differ, but the underlying anger is similar. Crucially, it is a protest against political power that dwarfs people who have borne excessive injustice. In January, the sportspersons had kept their protest apolitical, and agreed to step back when they were assured of action—they did try to ‘resolve things quietly’ and ‘adjust’, as ‘good girls’ are expected to do. But they faced the usual from those in power—a mix of silence and censure. It is an asymmetry of power within a patriarchal structure that allows injustice to persist. In the world of sports, such imbalances run deep. Selectors and administrators virtually rule over young sportspersons and can make or break careers; coaches are often mentors whose guidance is valued. Reporting mechanisms and redressal processes are essential but not enough to break the silence over gross misuse of authority. To end this menace, we need power held equitably by all genders. Women must have roles of leadership and decision-making in large numbers across all fields and sectors, so that it is not just men—even if assisted by a few women in authority with invisible limits—who speak for them, decide for them and impart gender justice for them.

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Updated: 02 May 2023, 11:02 PM IST
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