Sexual harassment at workplace: Women who dared to speak

Written By Unknown on Minggu, 24 November 2013 | 22.23

MUMBAI: It's been a year of shame, but also hope. Littered with cases of sexual harassment at the workplace, 2013 is about to wrap up on a dark note. What's heartening though, is the measured courage displayed by the young women involved in all cases, including a law graduate who blogged about a retired SC judge, who harassed her in a hotel room in 2012. The road ahead isn't going to be easy for any of them, say three other women who dared to lodge cases against their harassers at work. But a landmark order in one of their favour, after a gruelling 11-year-fight, says, the only way out is to speak up.

My office was dirtied with excreta
Doctor, Bangalore, 50

Action taken against accused: Dismissed

Complainant's status: Suspended in 2012; fighting for reinstatement

I didn't even realize when the harassment started. I was on a year-long contract with the medical centre of an elite management institute. My reporting officer, the Chief Administration Officer (CAO) of the institute, called me to his cabin "to discuss something". I entered, sat down and waited. He pretended to be busy on his computer and didn't speak, although he kept ogling at me.

This became a pattern. Sometimes, it would take a bizarre turn. Once, he sat with a teacup held against one eye while he looked at me from the other.

Each time I was summoned to his cabin, my colleagues would snigger. I would refuse his offers to step out for a coffee, but he'd try and keep me back after work. My husband asked me to ignore him and get on with my job because I was the sole earning member. My husband had quit the Army after 20 years of service, and I had a seven-year-old son.

The CAO began interfering with my work by not clearing files. He got others to coerce me into being 'nice' to him. "He should own you," my colleagues told me. Some women said it was just Mills & Boon flirting. I was disgusted. I'd weep for hours at home.

Within months of joining, I complained to the Dean of Administration, who told me to be strong.

At an offsite, the CAO saw to it that I travelled in his car, but I decided to take my son along. That infuriated him, and the humiliation intensified. That same year, I requested the Director to allow me to report to someone else, failing which I'd take police action. He promised to speak to the CAO. But he had somehow convinced the Director that he was not at fault. These three men, all of whom were my seniors, persuaded colleagues and students into writing mails to testify that I was missing from the medical centre during working hours. My employee card wouldn't register a swipe. Once, my office steps were dirtied with human excreta.

In 2009, I took my complaint to the Internal Complaints Committee, which constituted an investigating team according to SC guidelines in the 1997 Vishakha case.

In 2010, after I completed a year, I was put on a two-year probation. In 2012, I was told my case would be evaluated by the new Dean. He extended my probation by two months. And suddenly, I was handed a termination letter. Six months later, the committee gave in its recommendation - that the CAO be suspended. While I didn't receive a copy, he did.

Vimochana, a women's NGO, protested against my termination, following which I received anonymous threat calls. Nothing came of the FIR I filed, except that the CAO applied for anticipatory bail. Following a public outcry, he was suspended. He fought in court but was finally dismissed by the institute in May 2013.

Through this three-year ordeal, my family's health and peace have been sacrificed. But I continue to fight for reinstatement. - As told to Jayanthi Madhukar

He'd paw me in front of colleagues
The Journalist-researcher, 47, Kolkata

Action taken against accused: None

Complainant's status: Suspended after filing complaint; out of job since

In 2002, a month into my job as a senior reporter with The Statesman in Kolkata, my news coordinator began to stalk me. Sometimes, he'd paw me in front of colleagues. I thought it best to cope by staying away, but soon I realized that hardly any article I was filing was being published. If something did make it to the paper, it was because he'd be on leave that day.

I decided to approach the managing editor, who strangely, seemed to know what was going on. "He (molester) has strong feelings for you, which is why he is doing this," I was told. Love knows no age, he said, and advised me to reach an understanding with him.

A month after this September 2002 meeting, I received a termination letter. There was still a month for my probation to end, and the management didn't give me any reason. Not one female colleague supported me. Two men who spoke out were also sacked. People I knew thought it best for me to drop the issue, but something within me said I had to see this to its logical end. The firm didn't have a harassment cell.

The first NGO I approached, 'tested' me by asking to speak to my husband. They said, "This deters most complainants". Later, they backed out saying it was pointless taking on a big media house. Every lawyer turned me away saying there was no precedent.

An official from the State Commission for Women advised me to lodge a police complaint. But the media house refused to cooperate. That's when the Commission prevailed upon the police chief to appoint an IPS officer to conduct an inquiry. In 2003, the lawyers' collective Human Rights Law Network took up my case.

A decade after the incident, in February this year, the West Bengal Industrial Tribunal ordered that the media house reinstate me, and provide me with back wages for the last 10 years. Lawyers claim this is a landmark order that can be cited in similar petitions in future.

But the media house has moved the High Court, and I am facing another fight.

The stress has taken a physical toll, bringing me down with gynecological complications. No company in Kolkata is ready to hire me. I have had to turn to freelancing for outstation papers. Applying for a job outside the city was never an option because I had to be present at the Labour Court, and appear for two defamation cases - one civil and another criminal - that the firm and my senior filed against me in Kolkata and Delhi respectively. Shuttling between cities, juggling work and family has been a challenge.

There were times when I almost gave up, but something held me back. My harasser, meanwhile, has bagged and moved several jobs. - As told to Kripa Raman

I'd have to give them a 'treat'
The news reader, 28, Chennai

Action taken against accused: ​Arrested ​in March, 2013; ​Released on bail in a week; resigned eventually

Complainant's status: Felt compelled to resign; out of work

I joined Sun TV in December 2011 as their news anchor. Within a few months, I was put on the morning shift. I had to report to work at 4 am, but wasn't offered a pick-up. While other colleagues did this on rotation, my appointment seemed more permanent.

Over time, I realized that if I wanted a better deal - regular shifts, a confirmed position and a better pay packet - I'd have to 'adjust' to the demands of my news editor and scheduling editor. When I approached the news editor to question him, he asked me to call him after work hours. It was during this conversation - which I ended up recording - that he said I'd have to give them a 'treat' in lieu of the promotion. My confirmation was pending despite completing the six-month probationary period, and in November 2012, my Diwali bonus was also held back.

Often, they'd verbally abuse me in front of colleagues, and once, the news editor threatened me with dire consequences if I tried filing a harassment complaint. This went on incessantly for a year.

I don't know why I didn't think of approaching HR, but what I do know is that the organization did not have a sexual harassment cell back then. Colleagues I spoke to advised me to quit in favour of a better job since these things were unlikely to change. So, I filed a complaint with the local police in March this year.

Soon, the news became public and other women who had suffered a similar fate began calling me. Some of them had chosen to quit their jobs or not take up the offer at all. While the news editor had threatened to pack me off me to Tiruchirapalli for not accommodating him, another girl was told she'd be transferred to Pondicherry.

Although he and the scheduling editor were arrested following my complaint on March 19, the news editor was released on bail in a week. After a few days off, I resumed work on March 25, but was suspended on March 27 following a complaint by co-workers. The management claimed my colleagues had vouched for my inefficiency and poor performance. They claimed that my colleagues had said, the editor was actually a 'good' man. A friend at work who I had confided in was also suspended in a bid to isolate me.

As per the Supreme Court's Vishakha judgment guidelines, a fact-finding committee was instituted that had two retired judges, a lawyer, an NGO official and a Sun TV HR official. According to a report they submitted in September, all conversations between my seniors and me had occurred after work hours and therefore didn't constitute sexual harassment at work.

The chargesheet has been filed, and the court case continues. I've received all pending dues from the organization, but last Thursday, I decided to hand in my resignation. I couldn't continue in that hostile environment. I've approached other channels for a job, but most of them say they will 'think' about it and let me know.

My parents were apprehensive about my complaint; they feared a backlash because I was taking on powerful people. I even received threat calls from someone speaking on the editor's behalf. But I say, more women should find the strength to speak out. Men shouldn't get away. - As told to Gitanjali Chandrasekharan

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