Cover story on Sexual Harassment- Part 1

Introduction

Since ages, when it comes to sexual harassment, India has held a mind-set which callously excuses an unbecoming behaviour. Thus it is not a surprise that India has been ranked among the most dangerous countries for women to live in.

According to the 2018 Thomas Reuters Foundation poll, India is the most dangerous country for women to live in. The National Crime Bureau reports of 2013 have noted, 24,923 cases of sexual harassment. Considering that over 50% of the cases go unreported, this paints a grim portrait of the ineffective execution of existing laws. The conviction rate of rapists and harassers has seen a very steep decline over the past 40 years. The conviction rate, which was 44.3% in 1973, now stands at a paltry 27.1%. Hence, it is of utmost importance that we as individuals generate awareness amongst communities regarding this issue, and act on it within our own capabilities. 

This cover story is an earnest attempt to create awareness on sexual harassment. This article is compartmentalized into six different sections addressing various important variables discussed under the umbrella of sexual harassment. The last section is reserved for comments which we received in the survey.

(What follows is part 1 of a 3-part series in our online publication)

Awareness on Campus

A survey conducted in the campus released on 15th February 2019, filled by 602 respondents, that gauged their awareness about behaviours constituting sexual harassment revealed the following results.

Distribution of respondents

Both male and female students agreed that the following scenarios constituted sexual harassment: “Unwelcome sexual advances which may or may not be accompanied by promises or threats, explicit or implicit” – 85% male, 85% female.

“Invasion of personal space (getting too close for no reason, brushing against or cornering someone)” – 83% male, 86% female. While the former is the definition of ‘quid pro quo’ harassment, the latter is listed as one of the forms of sexual harassment under the act.

However, 19% of females thought that “staring in a suggestive manner or whistling” did not constitute sexual harassment while 35% males were of the same opinion. This disparity was even greater when it came to “making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts” – 11% females and 30% males did not consider it as sexual harassment. Only 50% odd males and females considered “stalking an individual” and “repeatedly asking someone out despite being turned down” to be sexual harassment.

According to the Indian Penal Code, “Whoever monitors a person’s use of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication that results in a fear of violence, or interferes with the mental peace of such person, commits the offence of stalking. ”Persistence is a virtue long romanticised by our culture – be it in movies, songs or even books. However, repeatedly pursuing someone despite them indicating disinterest is a violation of consent and clearly disrespectful of the person’s desires and emotions. Failure to recognise this as a form of sexual harassment indicates the need for having conversations on consent in campus.

With an almost 50-50 split in the number of males and females marking this option, this indicates a confusion so as to whether it constitutes sexual harassment. It must be remembered that sexual harassment, to be prosecutable, has to have sexual overtones. While it is an example of workplace harassment, bigotry does not amount to sexual harassment. Racism or any form of intolerance towards communities or individuals perceived to be ‘different’, can be called bigotry.

Casual sexism, although not strictly sexual harassment can contribute in creating a hostile work environment where employees of a particular gender or sexual orientation feel excluded and belittled. Leaving such behaviour unchecked might lead to further sexual harassment.

False accusations can damage a person’s reputation and credibility, and as a result must be considered a form of sexual harassment, a sentiment echoed by most survey takers. The Internal Complaints Committee has the power to take action against the complainant in case of a false allegation.

How commonly do you experience sexual harassment? (Male)

How commonly do you experience sexual harassment? (Female)

Most workplaces today have compulsory gender sensitization courses/sessions/programs for their employees. Do you think that similar mandatory courses/sessions/programs should be held on campus?

While the majority of the students felt that such sessions would be beneficial, a few of them expressed concern as they were unsure about how well it would be received by the intended audience. Due to the strong stigma linked with these issues, such sessions need to be carefully monitored to avoid escalating gender tensions. Another important point made by the surveyees was that these programs must not be limited only to students, and must be held for professors and other residents of the campus as well.

Redressal

To whom would you first complain if you were sexually harassed on campus?

Amongst the survey takers, 41% responded that they would first complain to the Student’s Council, with the rest being tossed between friends, warden or RSC and guards, while only a handful of respondents said that they would report the incident to the ICC. This may be due to lack of awareness or due to students feeling more comfortable talking to their peers at first. However, any authority receiving a complaint is required to forward it to the ICC, who will further investigate the case and take action against the accused.

Are you aware of the existence of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)?

Overall, only 18.4% of the survey respondents were aware of the existence of the ICC. To address this issue, the ICC members have been taking several measures to publicise themselves. Contact details of the ICC are displayed on the homepage of the institute website. An interactive session was arranged by the ICC with female students at Opal hostel on April 4th, 2019, during which the members encouraged the students to report all the instances of sexual harassment through a formal com-plaint letter or email.

“If yes, have you ever contacted them or helped someone contact them?

Internal Complaints Committee- Awareness and Student experiences:

Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at NIT Trichy was set up in accordance to the specifications of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act in 2013. It is mandatory for every institution/ workplace to have such a body. The ICC at NIT Trichy can be reached at their helpline number 9486001150 or by emailing to womencell@nitt.edu.

Read an interview with the members of the ICC: https://feedsnitt.com/2019/02/19/interview-with-the-icc

“If you did not complain, pick the most appropriate reason”

The most prevalent options chosen by the respondents were – “Wasn’t clear whether the offender intended harm” and “Didn’t think it was serious enough to report”. The first reason could point towards a lack of awareness on what constitutes sexual harassment. It could also be a result of the pervasive victim-blaming culture in our society, which forces the victim to internalise their feelings of discomfort. The second reason could stem from a reluctance to jeopardise someone’s career or job prospects because of the disciplinary action. The ICC can often settle such cases through a conciliation between the accused and the accuser, if the latter demands it. Disciplinary actions are only taken if the accuser rejects the option of conciliation.

The third most prevalent reason given by respondents is that they “wanted to forget that it happened.” Narrating instances of harassment can be traumatic. Fears of loss of confidentiality can also deter them from complaining. Victims must be assured of timely action and a fair hearing. The reluctance to report sexual harassment could also stem from a lack of awareness about the official procedure for redressal. A complicated and time-consuming procedure could put off even those at the receiving end of constant abuse. Not choosing to report repeated acts of sexual harassment might encourage the perpetrator to continue exploiting the aggrieved, or even other victims. In case an acquaintance’s behaviour is making someone uncomfortable despite indicated disinterest, it is the right of the victim to complain.

Part 2: https://feedsnitt.com/2020/07/04/cover-story-on-sexual-harassment-part-2/

To read our special issue: https://issuu.com/feeds.nitt/docs/special_issue

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The official media house of NIT Trichy.

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