The famous Tamil epic
Silapadhikaram from 2000-years ago narrates the story of Kannagi and her husband Kovalan. Kovalan and Kannagi migrate from their home town of Puhar (modern Poompuhar) to Madurai – the capital of the Pandya kingdom. It is here that Kovalan is falsely accused of stealing the Queen’s anklet. While Kannagi is able to prove his innocence, her rage at the kingdom is not assuaged. The epic talks about her anger at the injustice becoming flames of rage burning down the entire city. Today, when I read about the #MeToo stories, the tale of Kannagi’s rage comes to mind. The fire is spreading as women are naming and shaming those who made their lives miserable. The big question, what will Corporate India do next.
The #MeToo movement started in 2006 with Tarana Burke getting African-American women to share stories of their abuse. Actor Allysa Milano put out her story of sexual harassment and assault last year. Before you know it, hundreds of thousands of women had joined in to share their own stories. India saw the first phase of the #MeToo movement with law student
Raya Sarkar putting out a list of academics who sexually harass (LoSHA). This list did not get the kind of traction it deserved. It took a full year before #MeToo in India went viral. The cleansing, however, is not yet over. Almost all stories I have read have ended with the woman leaving her job, sometimes the industry, to start their professional life afresh.
For most organisations in India, the first tryst with the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) came about after the Tehelka case where the managing editor Tarun Tejpal was accused of forcing his sexual attentions on a younger colleague. This is when many organisations scrambled together to set up their anti-sexual harassment committees in place. Unfortunately, the haste with which these were setup meant that there was no room for training those who ran these committees. The setting up of PoSH committees was done to comply with the law; not to solve the issue of harassment.
The current wave of #MeToo is vocal and public. The men who are named are well known for this to be swept under the carpet. For every one of the big names being outed, there are probably thousands of more cases where the behaviour has gone unchecked. What are the consequences if they are all outed?
It is estimated that it takes between
8 and 10 months for the accused man to resume a somewhat normal life and getting back to his career without much damage. The reason they flourish is because the organisation enables it with lax systems and protocols that makes the woman employee feel like an intruder in a boy’s club. It makes harassment the price one has to pay to get into the ‘club’. This must stop. Some of the blame must lie with their organisations that enabled an environment in which this kind of behaviour is normalised.
A complaint to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee is usually the last step. What she needs after overcoming multiple self-doubts on filing the complaint, is empathy. For an organisation, it is just not enough to have legally mandated processes. It is imperative that safe working spaces are a norm – an environment that lets a woman thrive, just as well as a man does.
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Men need to be trained on how to behave at workplaces. This must be part and parcel of every employee’s induction into the company followed by continuous retraining. There needs to be receptiveness to hear the woman out and respect her confidentiality.
Unless corporate India decides to do more than a lip-service to the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace, #MeToo is going to be an ongoing affair. The reason why women choose to share their most private hurt and grief with the world is because there is no space in the organisation to hear them out. The reason why men’s names are tumbling out for public shaming is because this is the only way women think they will get some measure of closure.
Organisations have a key role to play in preventing entitled men from pressuring women for favours. It is a role in which they have hitherto failed. That needs to change.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
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