Indian firms take on sexual harassment

NEW DELHI- Bangalore-based consultant Nirmala Menon has been getting a flurry of calls in the last few weeks from companies that want help in setting up panels to deal with sexual harassment complaints.

Queries have tripled since the founder editor of Tehelka magazine Tarun Tejpal was arrested almost a fortnight ago for allegedly raping a junior colleague. He is accused of assaulting the woman, a journalist, twice in the lift of a five-star hotel at a company event.

This was followed by another high-profile case of a retired judge accused of sexually harassing a law intern. The intern went public about it on a blog last month. A Supreme Court panel in a preliminary finding found the retired judge A. K. Ganguly guilty of making "unwelcome advances towards the woman". The Delhi police are looking at registering a case.

"With the cases, all of a sudden, organisations have realised the vulnerability of not having (an internal committee)," said Ms Menon, founder of Interweave, a Bangalore-based consultancy that runs awareness programmes for companies on sexual harassment.

Tehelka was criticised for not having a panel, mandatory under Supreme Court guidelines since 1997, to deal with the journalist's initial complaint to the management.

"The bigger companies always had them but now, mid-level and smaller organisations with even 60 to 70 people are approaching us. That is definitely new," said Ms Menon.

The change has come about since India passed the Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, in September this year, making it legally mandatory for companies to set up such panels. They face the penalty of losing their business licences if they do not.

The law has yet to be enforced.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is hardly a new phenomenon in India but, like other sexual violence against women, has long been shrouded in silence.

A 2010 survey on workplace sexual harassment conducted by the Centre for Transforming India, a non-profit organisation, found that 88 per cent of women interviewed faced some form of harassment but many did not want to complain for fear of professional reprisals. Many others were not aware of what exactly constituted harassment.

But things are slowly changing as more women join the workplace and cases at work receive wide publicity.

In October, a 35-year-old laboratory assistant in a Delhi college set herself on fire after alleging that she had been sexually and mentally harassed by two colleagues. She died from her injuries. In September, a college professor was suspended for allegedly sending "unwarranted" messages to a PhD student. Then came the Tehelka case, followed by that of the law intern.

"A lot of companies were not aware and didn't think it necessary to have structural intervention and did not accord it any importance. But these cases have created greater sensitivity and raised awareness," said Mr Pankaj Sharma from the Centre for Transforming India.

"This is a common phenomenon the world over. The only difference is if you have a gender-sensitive workplace, strong judicial system and reporting intensity. India scores low."

Indeed, activists believe India has a long way to go. Just setting up panels is not enough if it is not accompanied by greater sensitivity towards the opposite sex and action when complaints are made.

Last month, the Supreme Court set up a 10-member committee to look into sexual harassment complaints, which could be anything from physical advances to "sexually coloured" remarks.

The Press Council of India has also asked all media houses to set up internal panels. The Hindu newspaper has done so.

Ms Swarna Rajagopalan of Chennai-based non-profit Prajnya Trust said the extent of sexual harassment will become clearer after panels are set up and women have a place to go.

"People will know where to take their complaints once the committees come. Then we will have a sense of of how large the problem is," she said. "It is the first step. The journey doesn't begin or end with the setting up of committees."

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