Indian women demand action as online harassment rises amid coronavirus

A protest after the death of a rape victim in New Delhi.
PHOTO: Reuters

Remote working during the coronavirus pandemic has been traumatic for Sameera Kumar, a young executive with a financial services company in Gurgaon, India .

She was a victim of virtual sexual harassment at work, which started with regular phone calls after office hours from her male team leader that went on for three months during the lockdown that started in March. Finally, she decided she had had enough and stopped responding to him.

The tack backfired, however, as her manager then started complaining about her “poor performance”, telling her she could be sacked. She contacted her company’s downsized human resources team in Mumbai but had second thoughts about escalating the issue. “I was deeply distressed, shocked and helpless,” said Kumar, who asked not to be identified by her real name.

But a recent meeting with New Delhi-based lawyer Devikaa Singh proved to be an eye-opener for Kumar on what constitutes harassment.

Singh said that after seeing the phone and WhatsApp messages Kumar’s boss had sent to her, “I pointed out the red flags – like when he asked her why is she not married and if she has a boyfriend. He had asked her what kind of dresses she likes. In one chat he had spoken about his extramarital affairs.” Singh said she advised Kumar to document all the evidence and file a written complaint with her company. She is yet to receive a response.

“Sexual harassment will not disappear simply because we are no longer interacting in a physical workplace,” said Singh, co-founder of Cohere Consultants, a diversity and inclusion practice firm that employs lawyers, HR managers, social workers and counsellors. “It finds new ways to manifest. Unless there is enough emphasis on sensitisation in the work from home model, legal policies are not likely to be successful.”

Akancha Srivastava, who runs an initiative called Akancha Against Harassment, which educates people battling cyber abuse about how to reach out for help, was expecting that calls to her organisation would climb during the coronavirus pandemic , with many women having switched to remote working.

An anti-sex-harassment training session at ITD Cementation Mumbai run by ComplyKaro.
PHOTO: ComplyKaro

What she wasn’t expecting was the more than 1,000 per cent increase in complaints.

During the first 10 months of the year, her group received 2,200 calls and emails from women, and some men, reporting harassment during online meetings and through emails, compared with just 170 cyber-harassment complaints in the same period the year before.

And despite being prepared for an increase in complaints, “I was shocked that online harassment and abuse took place even in the middle of a pandemic.” she said.

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Though India passed a law on Prevention of Sexual Harassment, known as POSH, in 2013 to deal with cases of workplace sexual harassment, 47 per cent of Indian women and men surveyed in a 2018 report by global market research agency Ipsos said they believed sexual harassment was still the most urgent issue in the country.

POSH requires employers to provide a safe work environment for all employees regardless of their gender. Companies have to constitute an internal complaints committee and conduct sensitisation sessions.

If a harassment complaint is not investigated or registered by a company, women can approach a district-level committee in whichever state they live to register a separate complaint about their company not acting, or go to the police or women’s rights organisations.

But critics of the law say that clarity is still needed on what constitutes virtual sexual harassment, the obligations of an employer when a case is filed, and the remedies available to the complainant.

Sana Hakim, a lawyer and partner for POSH at Work, a legal firm specialising in workplace harassment, said that to really tackle harassment, “Organisations need to have specific social media policies, monitor the way employees communicate, post any content, implement a dress code and ask employees to check their background during video calls.”

Marching Sheep, a Delhi-based HR consultancy firm that helps companies build diversity and inclusion strategies, conducted a survey in June in which just over half of the 1,000 respondents said companies should modify their anti-sexual harassment training courses to include remote working.

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Eighty-five per cent said the training should include how to respond to cyberbullying and virtual harassment.

Marching Sheep’s founder, Sonica Aron, said she had heard of instances where female employees were told by male superiors that they must turn on their laptop cameras for calls after office hours, and of women receiving comments on their attire during online meetings.

“Women are aware of what constitutes sexual harassment even on virtual platforms,” she said. “However, uncertainty around job loss still continues” during the coronavirus pandemic. “Amid this, many women may choose not to raise complaints or to reconcile under pressure.”

In a recent Human Rights Watch India report on the country’s enforcement of its sexual harassment laws, HRW said most women choose not to report sexual harassment to company officials because of a lack of awareness of reporting policies, fear of retribution or stigma, or a lack of confidence in the complaints mechanism.

Sunita Menon, director of Breakthrough India, which works on women’s issues, said that overall in India, reporting of online sexual harassment cases to companies is now easier because the evidence of such harassment is easier to capture and preserve.

“Women can provide evidence which can be documented or recorded on mobile or mails. Companies can also carry out investigations remotely with the help of technology,” she said, adding that women find it easier when they can tell their superiors via email or phone about harassment rather than in person, because at times it is too intimidating.

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At Razorpay, an online payments company, employees are encouraged to report any unwelcome behaviour that comes with sexual overtones. “They are free to decline virtual meetings outside the core working hours,” said Anuradha Bharat, the head of people operations at Razorpay.

Sarika Pradhan, head of POSH committee at Wipro said, “Companies find it challenging to ensure that their employees understand sexual harassment in the context of remote working. The challenge is to conduct investigations virtually ensuring confidentiality with appropriate evidence and security measures in place.”

Training firms specialising in combating sexual harassment at the workplace say there are hundreds of companies that are conducting training and knowledge sessions.

Despite the rise in awareness, said Vishal Kedia, founder and director of ComplyKaro, a platform specialising in training companies and employees on dealing with sexual harassment, “more than 50 per cent of businesses across India are non-compliant in some aspect or another”.

The main challenge for companies now, he said, was “how to define the appropriate decorum” for virtual interactions between managers and employees, with the hope that companies countrywide are able to make their workplaces more inclusive and sensitive.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.