“How old is this one? Less than a two years old, you say?!” I was exasperated. Child marriages were common in my village, but this was outrageous. I vowed to stop this one as I could not bear the thought of yet another girl’s life ruined before she could even speak. I approached a women’s organization about the same, in the hope that something would be done for the girl.
Though the wedding was delayed due to the arrival of the police, the family stealthily carried it out at 2am that night. Naturally, the villagers who supported this marriage believed that I had alerted the police and swore to get their revenge. My husband grew fearful of their anger, but I knew I had done the right thing.
One morning, as my husband and I were tilling the fields together, I saw five men make their way towards us. They carried large sticks in their hands and before I knew it, they had knocked my husband unconscious. I screamed in horror as I felt a rough hand clamp over my mouth and another pair of hands twisting my arms behind my back. What they did to me next was so violent, that I was barely conscious.
Five years later, the five men walked away scot free, leaving me with nightmares and trauma. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court formulated a set of guidelines to protect women from sexual harassment at the workplace. They were called the Vishakha Guidelines, after the NGO that attempted to get justice for me. The guidelines were as follows:
Sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:
(a) physical contact and advances (b) a demand or request for sexual favours (c) sexually coloured remarks (d) showing pornography (e) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
Where any of these acts is committed in circumstances where under the victim of such conduct has a reasonable apprehension that in relation to the victim's employment or work whether she is drawing salary, or honorarium or voluntary, whether in government, public or private enterprise such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem it amounts to sexual harassment.
It is discriminatory for instance when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment or work including recruiting or promotion or when it creates a hostile work environment. Adverse consequences might be visited if the victim does not consent to the conduct in question or raises any objection thereto.
The mentioned extract is an attempt to capture the case of Bhanwaari Devi, a social reformer who became a victim of blatant misogyny.
Though these guidelines are a step towards change, 70% of Indian women face some form of harassment in the workplace. The recent case against Arunabh Kumar as well as the Tehelka case are testimony to this. Both cases are exemplars of a blatant disregard for a women’s basic right to work. As long as this goes on, highly qualified women will continue to lose out on promotions, job offers and positions of authority. There is no reason, in my opinion, for a woman to have to visit a workplace with either fear in her mind or a chip on her shoulder about being a woman. Sadly, most women in India have reported being profoundly afraid of their male colleagues and being afraid of reporting the subtler forms of harassment such as obscene jokes or lewd comments. While the Vishaka guidelines do include these in their purview, the implementation seems to be lagging far behind. This is mainly because such things are viewed as passé in Indian society; for some reason, physical contact is the only “serious” form of harassment according to most Indians.
With this kind of attitude towards working women, it comes as no surprise that maternity benefits have only recently started to improve. It is heartening to note that some cooperate offices have introduced the concept of paternity benefit. According to me, this is a highly progressive concept in as much as it acknowledges the importance of a father’s presence during a child’s formative years, while reinforcing the equal distribution of parental responsibilities. The extended time period of maternal leave is also a step in the right direction. It succeeds in slowly but surely demolishing the notion that once a woman gives birth, her career is over.
While some women might be able to overcome sexual harassment and/or the burden of managing a job as well as a home, the pay gap tends to dampen and sometimes nullify their efforts. Studies have shown that Indian men earn up to 25% more than women in the same positions. This figure displays the shocking truth- that men are still deemed to be more competent and more productive, and thereby more deserving of a higher pay. This is also a blatant violation of the provisions enshrined in the constitution under articles 14, 39(a), 39(d), and 42. While industries such as Bollywood have started to vocalize the issue of disparate wages, the numbers will only change if the mindset does.
The world is talking about BBC, but let us not forget that laws with respect to working women in India still have several loopholes which need to be eliminated before any semblance of equality is achieved.