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Posted at: Apr 24, 2019, 6:48 AM; last updated: Apr 24, 2019, 6:48 AM (IST)

The MeToo movement, warts and all

Prem Chowdhry

Prem Chowdhry
The MeToo movement has made its presence felt in India. However, the implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act has left a lot to be desired. Lack of awareness of the Act among workers in the unorganised sector is a major stumbling block. Misuse of the law to settle scores is another cause for concern.
The MeToo movement, warts and all
Indifferent: Organisations in the private sector are especially not receptive to complaints of sexual harassment.

Prem Chowdhry
Author and academic, Delhi University

THE allegations of sexual harassment levelled against the Chief Justice of India (CJI) by a former employee of the Supreme Court have again brought into focus the MeToo movement. This movement has enabled women to feel empowered to step forward and speak for themselves. American actress Alyssa Milano had posted a message on Twitter in 2017, encouraging all women who faced sexual violence to write ‘#MeToo’ as their status. Her tweet went viral, with many celebrities and other women sharing their stories. 

In India, the MeToo movement has made its presence felt in several spheres, including the government, the media and the film industry. It has encouraged many women to narrate their stories of anger and guilt, buried under years of silence. It has created awareness about sexual violence, underlining the fact that the legal and systemic provisions to deal with sexual harassment have failed. This ‘name and shame’ movement allows victims to draw courage to name the accused through a collective. This forces the administrators or the people in charge to take the problem seriously. It changes the power dynamics between the two sexes by exposing the abuse of power and position by influential men for sexually harassing the women around them.

The biggest outcome of the movement in India so far has been the resignation of MJ Akbar, who was Minister of State for External Affairs, after no less than 16 women came on record alleging sexual harassment by him in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The alleged incidents occurred when he was a newspaper editor in New Delhi. Akbar filed a defamation case against Priya Ramani, the first woman who named him. 

Subsequently, the ‘name and shame’ campaign spread through social media. Raya Sarkar, then at the University of California, posted on Facebook in October 2017 a list of Indian academicians who were alleged to have committed acts of sexual harassment or assault. She is said to have compiled the list as the institutional mechanisms routinely failed those who complained, having herself faced sexual harassment. 

In 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed. Before that, guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in 1997 were in operation, but these were hardly implemented, especially in academic institutions. The Act defined sexual harassment at the workplace and made it mandatory for any workplace with more than 10 employees to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee  for the redressal of complaints. Employers who failed to comply were to be punished with a fine up to Rs 50,000. The committee was required to complete the inquiry within  90 days and take action on the report within 60 days. The government could order an officer to inspect the workplace and records related to sexual harassment in any organisation. It had also provided safeguards against false or malicious charges. The Act included organisations in the public and private sector, organised and unorganised sectors, hospitals, nursing homes, educational institutions, sports institutes, stadiums and any place visited by the employee during employment. The definition of an ‘aggrieved woman’ covered all women, irrespective of age or employment status, and including clients, customers and domestic workers as well.

The focus on this committee increased with the rise of the MeToo movement. However, even now most Indian employers have not constituted this committee as required under the Act. In some cases, employers do not go beyond setting up a complaints committee as mandated, but it hardly works. Privately owned organisations are especially not receptive to complaints of sexual harassment. To tackle this problem, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, through a notification dated July 31, 2018, amended the Companies (Accounts) Rules 2014. The notification made it mandatory for private companies to disclose their compliance with the Act in their directors’ annual report. It also made the state government concerned duty-bound to notify the district officer for setting up a Local Complaints Committee. State governments are expected to monitor the implementation of the Act.

Workplaces in India are often male-dominated and prone to sexual harassment. Non-reporting owing to fear of retaliation, stigma, etc., compounds the problem, which in turn emboldens the perpetrators. Many women do not even come forward to lodge a complaint. It is estimated that out of 500 instances of harassment, only 50 get reported. Even in these cases, the subordinates are afraid to take action due to fear of retaliation. Reports suggest that even if there is a grievance mechanism in place, the power dynamics are against the woman if she makes a formal report. The status of the perpetrator plays a major role in the complaint getting invalidated. A report of the Social and Rural Research Institute suggests that women continue to be discriminated against in various ways in the organised and unorganised sectors. Workers in the unorganised sector are unaware of this law and its provisions and how to reach the authorities. Their biggest fear is the counter-allegation of theft which results in a loss of livelihood. There is a need to create deterrence at the community level. 

It’s only in the elite circles that MeToo continues to be sensational and effective. Men’s rights activists feel that women have an agenda behind reporting rape, sexual assault and harassment. According to them, it is similar to the false dowry cases. Similarly, rape laws are sometimes misused to extort money or take revenge. Many cases deal with the sexual relationship between consenting adults or are simple cases of elopement. Yet, false complaints of rape and abduction are filed against the man, who is treated as a criminal and punished for sexual harassment and rape. During my field work in Haryana regarding honour killings, I found it to be true in many cases. Such findings substantiate the claims made by men’s rights activists about the misuse of the law. 

In 2018, Justice Shahrukh Kathawalla of the Bombay High Court, while appreciating the MeToo movement, had said, “We don’t want anybody to manipulate the woman to settle scores.” This is what the CJI is hinting at while refuting the allegations.

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