Helping To Speak Out Against Sexual Harassment

Sucheta Dalal reports on a unique social organisation that is...

"Working women have faced hostility in countless ways ranging from condescending attitudes, hostile men's leagues in organisations, unequal pay, delayed promotions, sly remarks on the plight of spouses of working women, less than humorous remarks on women's appearance, flirtatious glances, direct request for sexual favours", says a report titled 'Sex, lies and malice at the workplace' .

That this report is posted on a career website called signals how widespread is this malaise. If further proof were need, it was provided by a 2001 survey by Sakshi (an NGO for women), which surveyed 2410 working women in five States, both in government and private organisations.

The findings were startling. Some 80% said that sexual harassment exists at their workplace and 70% said women, in general face inappropriate behaviour from co-workers and supervisors. Over half of those surveyed said that women are treated unfairly by employers and co-workers, do not get equal opportunities and have been the butt of sexual remarks or jokes. Other surveys have found that this largely invisible form of harassment and discrimination exists even in empowering professions such as law or the media. It remains invisible and unspoken because whining about it is the surest way to end one's career. Only extreme cases lead to complaints. Most women simply change jobs or seek transfers. A Confederation of Indian Industry survey of 149 companies was revealing. The number of women in the workplace and in key decision-making positions has increased, but less than 1% make it to the CEO post and under 5% to senior management. They are also scarce in board rooms unless related to the promoter group.

The Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement - Vishaka v/s High Court of Rajasthan (1997) defined sexual harassment: "Sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as: physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature". Yet, many suffering women have neither heard of the Vishaka judgement, nor do they want to attract suspicion and hostility by filing formal complaints. Indeed, many are even unaware about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour. Or when an invisible line is crossed and a compliment turns improper or 'good fun' degenerates to lewd behaviour. Here is where, Sakshi, a non profit organisation, plays an invaluable role.

Naina Kapur, a lawyer and co-director of Sakshi and her team, conduct training programmes for corporate houses, government organisations and schools to create attitudinal shifts. These allow participants to observe, re-assess and possibly correct their behaviour through a series of discussions, games and role-playing exercises. Most often, it makes people confront their hidden or unaccepted biases. Many of Sakshi's trainers have a theatre background. That makes the training more meaningful. The training is not restricted to sexual harassment, but also covers attitudes towards less empowered persons. HR managers who have chosen Sakshi’s training and workshops for their employees enthusiastically acknowledge their efficacy.

Research, documentation, training and education are only a part of Sakshi's profile. It also manages targeted projects such as Project Equality, which works a sensitising community leaders and the judiciary; Project Disha to promote the enforcement of Supreme Courts guidelines on sexual harassment at the work place and the Aqeelah Alam Sexual Health Project.

Although Sakshi operates from Delhi, it is open to conducting training programmes all over India and these help generate revenue to sustain other activities including audio and video documentaries and publications on gender issues. Its sister concern --the Institute for Support, Healing and Awareness (IFSHA) is focussed on support, healing and awareness in issues such as Violence Against Women. Like all non-profit organisations it is open to donations and volunteer work.

34 Akashneem Marg
DLF Phase II, First Floor,
Gurgaon, Haryana 122002
email: [email protected]

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