For Nida Kamal, a former national lawn tennis player, the ongoing wrestlers’ protest is a stark reminder on how the Indian sports fraternity has failed to save its players.

Speaking to The Citizen, Kamal, who has also played internationally, said, “India isn’t new to discriminatory practices against women. A look into history shows the continuous lack of safety and space for women in all fields including sports.

“Athletes spend all their life perfecting their sport, the skills, the fitness, the attitude. Athletes also tend to be representatives of not just themselves but the multi-faceted identities that human beings hold.”

Kamal said she quit playing tennis as it is an expensive sport and there was hardly any help for players like her, who came from humble backgrounds.

“A lot of the time people who are facing such situations or feel helpless come from very particular backgrounds. I feel that it depends on where the sportsperson is training. The financial aspect plays a significant role,” she said.

She added that while she had seen her own struggles, there was no place players could go to if they faced such situations.

With the onset of the wrestlers’ protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi over sexual assault allegations by seven women, conversations have started on what should be done to tackle a situation, which is prevalent in all sports.

Young girls often spend several days away from home on camps and tournaments. “I was young when I used to go for training and tournaments to different parts of India. My mother used to go with me and we were two women travelling alone staying at shady hotels. It felt unsafe,” Kamal recalled.

In many cases due to financial constraints family members do not travel, leaving female athletes vulnerable to predatory male coaches or administrators.

Keerthana Swaminathan, a sports psychologist and behaviour coach said that most of the time the women are harassed by their coach, which is why it is difficult to even accept sexual harassment in the first place.

Swaminathan is the president of INSPA, a sports association for sports psychologists and to make it ethical.

“The one problem when it comes to sexual assault in sports is that a lot of women are not aware that they have been harassed, mostly because the person who has done it is most of the time their coach and it is hard for them to accept that a person who mentors them could do something like this,” she said, adding that many women feel unsure what would happen to their future in sports if the complaint.

She further said that they receive a lot of sportspersons with sexual harassment allegations, which only shows how ingrained the issue is.

While the country is distressed to see medal winning wrestlers crying as their pleas go unheard by the government, former and current athletes say that in majority cases things go unreported.

“A lot of athletes that I have handled do not want to come out because of all this,” she said.

Wrestlers coming out to speak about sexual harassment of women is not the first-time sportspersons have raised this issue.

In 2021, seven girls accused athletics coach P. Nagarajan of sexual abuse. One of the victims was 13 years old, when Nagarajan first harassed her. Any resistance would be met with threats of murder of that girl and her family.

After the charges came out, Nagarajan tried to commit suicide by consuming sleeping pills. But he survived and was later arrested under the IPC and POCSO Act.

Meanwhile, last year, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) sacked chief cycling coach RK Sharma after a woman cyclist accused him of inappropriate behaviour during a training trip to Slovenia. The cyclist said the coach had forced her to share a hotel room with him.

Speaking with The Citizen, Deepthi Bopaiah, CEO of sports foundation GoSports, a non-profit venture working towards the development of India’s top talents in Olympic and Paralympic disciplines, said that while an issue like sexual harassment in prevalent in the society and sports industry has not been vary of it as well.

“Corporate India put in a long time to implement the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Policy, which is taking time to fully implement. But that’s why there are structures,” she said.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, commonly known as the PoSH Act, was passed in 2013. It defined sexual harassment, lay down the procedures for complaint and inquiry, and the action to be taken in cases of sexual harassment.

The Vishaka Guidelines defined sexual harassment and imposed three key obligations on institutions — prohibition, prevention, redress. The Supreme Court directed that they should establish a Complaints Committee, which would look into matters of sexual harassment of women at the workplace. The court made the guidelines legally binding.

The PoSH Act subsequently mandated that every employer must constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at each office or branch that had 10 or more employees. It defined various aspects of sexual harassment, and lay down procedures for action in case of a complaint.

“A lot of leadership in Federations include people who have been former players, experts and come with a certain experience. But the Federations, which are very driven by, I will not say just politicians, but primarily men,” Bopaiah added.

She further said that because of the men sitting there, women are hesitant to reach out and even though there are policies, no one is aware of the process, which creates a big communication gap.

A report by the ‘Indian Express’ revealed that according to the PoSH Act an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) was mandated, however, half the sports federations don’t have sexual harassment panels.

The report suggested that as many as 16 of the 30 national sports federations — of disciplines in which India has participated in the 2018 Asian Games, Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and last year’s Commonwealth Games — do not meet this mandatory compliance.

However, on Friday, a division Bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Hima Kohli and A.S. Bopanna, issued a set of guidelines to ensure the urgent and efficient enforcement of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (PoSH Act), in the interest of working women across the country.

Stressing on the constitution of Internal Complaints Committees for strict enforcement of PoSH provisions, the top court ruled that all employers and employees need to be familiarised with provisions of the PoSH Act by means of conduction of orientation sessions.

Meanwhile, the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) issued a notice to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports over reports that the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and four other bodies do not have an internal complaints committee to address sexual harassment charges.

The commission has also sent notices to the Sports Authority of

India (SAI), the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the WFI and several other national sports federations over reports that they either do not even have an ICC or a properly functional ICC as required by law, according to a statement issued by the rights panel.

Swaminathan, meanwhile, while speaking about the issue said that while many federations do not have an ICC, there is no understanding of whether any work related to sexual harassment is actually happening.

“This one part is the stigma. The second part is the effort that they will have to go through,” Swaminathan said, adding that they are unsure mostly because there is no system in place to help them.

A report published in August 2021, "Dangers lurking for sportspersons in India," indicated there could be nearly 200 perpetrators and 10,000 victims across 53 major sports in India.

“As a primary introduction to the model, the Indian sporting industry is autonomous in nature, i.e. it has its own set of rules as well as regulating bodies with minimal governmental interference (financial and technical assistance) in its day-to-day functioning,” the report read.

Bopaiah, however, said that there is a toll-free number established by the Sports Authority of India where one can call and leave an anonymous complaint, but due to the lack of awareness not many use it.

“This is across multiple languages. So, I think that's because in the past, they got some complaints and they actually tried to put a system where there is an anonymous calling,” she added.

Talks for safe spaces for both men and women in sports have been going on for long, but like ICC there has been no concrete action in place to implement it.

“I think we need to talk about equity, which means we give the person what is required. Most athletes both men and women require what is called psychological safety, which means the players know that they are safe here,” she said, adding that it is very important to create this safe echo chamber for players.

Bopaiah, meanwhile added that there needs to be a panel, which is unbiased.

“I don't deny there are quite a bit of cases, which are egregious allegations. I think there should be a panel of experts so that this can descend through a process that can be vetted and is faster,” she added. She further said that organisations like her and many others need to come together and set up a code for sports in India.

Kamal, meanwhile, feels that the situation is far worse at the moment, especially for those who come from marginalised communities and rural India.

“Generations have spent hoping for a change and yet the progress towards a safer environment is felt only by those who have certain financial status that protects them by providing an alternative that many others do not,” she added.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also been criticised for keeping quiet on the issue. Many believe that while the PM has used Indian sports as a way of celebration his silence in the matter is concerning.

“He invites us to his home when we win medals and gives us a lot of respect and calls us his daughters. Today, we appeal to him that he listens to our 'Mann Ki Baat,” Sakshi Malik, Indian wrestler said during a media interaction, drawing an analogy with the PM’s radio program.