NEW DELHI: When Rupashree Dasgupta was offered the job of an Associate Professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences in Patna, Bihar, she did not know that tough times were in store for her in the future. In less than a month of joining, one of her senior colleagues asked for a sexual favour. Her outright protest only led to more physical and mental abuse followed by a termination letter. Instead of taking things lying down she decided to approach the Complaints Committee for redress. However, to her utter surprise, her complaint was dismissed without even so much as a hearing. For three years, Dasgupta kept up the fight for her job and justice even as 11 court cases, countless threats, a well-planned defamation campaign and the apathetic attitude of government officials brought her to a point where she even tried to attempt suicide.

It was only after several women’s rights groups joined hands to mount a counter campaign in her favour, which attracted a lot of media attention and eventually led to the constitution of a parliamentary panel, that she was finally reinstated in March 2015. Today, she is back at work but the trauma she faced will stay with her forever.

“Life will never be the same again. She paid a heavy price for protesting against sexual harassment. There were moments of acute frustration and depression,” remarks Deepti Sharma, one of the petitioners who supported Dasgupta.

In India, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, provides for “protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. As per the legal definition, sexual harassment includes physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually-coloured remarks, showing pornography and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. Of course, even after more than a year has gone by since its enactment, most organisations have yet to implement it in letter and spirit.

“Sexual Harassment has become very common. Women no longer feel safe in the workplace. Whereas there is strong law to protect their interests there is need for continuous efforts from lawmakers as well as employers to seriously address the issue,” points out Indira Jaising, former Additional Solicitor General of India and a leading lawyer and feminist.

But for a few recent high profile cases, such as the one involving climate crusader R.K. Pachauri and a TERI employee or that of Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal and an intern at his magazine, which have been pursued by the authorities, the issue has largely been swept under the carpet.

According to a survey on workplace sexual harassment conducted by the Centre for Transforming India, around 88 per cent of women working in the Information Technology (IT) and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sectors have suffered from sexual harassment at some point of time. While 50 per cent have been harassed physically or with sexually abusive language, around 47 per cent of the women employees did not know how to deal with it and 91 per cent of the victims were afraid of discussing their problems, let alone reporting to higher authorities. The main reason behind this silence is the heavy price they have to pay for raising their voice in terms of social stigma and public humiliation.

Anubha, a bright management trainee, used to be frequently called into the chamber of the managing director of the company she was working with only to suffer through his lewd remarks and vulgar gestures. Although she kept rejecting his advances he did not back down. Finally, after four months of stalking and harassment she filed a formal complaint. Not surprisingly, that was just the beginning of her ordeal. “The whole office turned hostile. I was removed from all important projects and denied an increment. I was given all the odd-hour assignments and was constantly humiliated during staff meetings. Only a handful of people who could dare to go against the managing director sympathised with me,” recalls Anubha, a gold medallist in Economics from Delhi University.

Finally, Anubha got fed up of the everyday struggles and left her job. The whole experience was so disturbing that she needed to take a break of a year-and-a-half as well as multiple sessions with a psychiatrist to muster the nerve to seek another job. “I am still wary of dressing up well as I do not want to attract any unwanted attention at my new office. I know this is a regressive attitude but I’m too scared to undergo the same trauma. I was not the only one to suffer sexual harassment at my last workplace but I paid a price because I chose to protest while others decided to keep silent,” she shares.

Unfortunately, even though its business as usual for the harassers, those who stand up for themselves are viewed as a potential threat by all prospective employers, which thwarts their chances of getting back to the workforce with dignity.

Before she filed a complaint against her boss, that eventually forced her to quit her job, Momita used to work for a media company. Thereafter, getting a decent assignment, too, was an uphill task. “No one wants to hire a ‘trouble-maker’. Despite the equal opportunity claim, a woman who has filed a sexual harassment complaint is hardly welcome in any office. I realised this bitter truth after series of rejections during interviews,” says the media professional, who has joined a publishing house after much perseverance.

As a practice, rather than supporting their female employee and conducting a fair investigation as mandated under the law, most institutions try and suppress the case. The Act directs the constitution of an Internal Complaints Committee by all establishments that have 10 or more employees. Yet, a majority of the private sector companies have no such committee in place and those that do make every effort to close the matter without any investigation.

Dr Rashima, a senior doctor at premium medical research institute, was facing harassment for the last three years at the hands of her Head of Department (HoD). When she filed a complaint, her projects, which required the HoD’s signature, were stalled. “I have developed severe hypertension. My research work is held up. When I approached the management, they said they would cooperate only if I withdrew the complaint,” she says. Though Rashima followed their advice, she is “disgusted” with the fact that nothing has happened to her culprit till date.

“In most cases, neither are the HR managers aware of the provisions under the law nor are they sensitive enough to implement it properly. Companies believe that the management needs not get involved in the “mess”,” reveals Amitabh Kumar of the Centre for Social Research (CSR), a Delhi-based NGO.

In the wake of such negative attitudes, the government has directed corporate and government offices to set up a sexual harassment committee failing which they will have to face fine or even cancellation of their licence. Acknowledging the fact that “we are receiving so many complaints every month from women working in the private sector about the absence of such a committee in their organisations” Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi reiterates that “it is something we are taking very seriously. We have written letters to all business chambers” to do the needful.

Way back in 1997 the Supreme Court had first recognised the gravity of sexual harassment of the working women at the workplaces and laid down the Vishaka Guidelines making it mandatory for employers to prevent such acts. Years later, and despite a law, the challenges continue to hamper women’s participation in the workforce.

(Names of women have been changed on request.)

( Women's Feature Service)