Resource: Pandemics and Violence against Women and Children

Amber Peterman, Alina Potts, Megan O’Donnell, Kelly Thompson, Niyati Shah, Sabine Oertelt-Prigione, and Nicoele van Gelder, Pandemics and Violence Against Women and Children, Working Paper 528, Centre for Global Development, April 2020. (

Times of economic uncertainty, civil unrest, and disaster are linked to a myriad of risk factors for increased violence against women and children (VAW/C). Pandemics are no exception. In fact, the regional or global nature and associated fear and uncertainty associated with pandemics provide an enabling environment that may exacerbate or spark diverse forms of violence. Understanding mechanisms underlying these dynamics are important for crafting policy and program responses to mitigate adverse effects. Based on existing published and grey literature, we document nine main (direct and indirect) pathways linking pandemics and VAW/C, through effects of (on): (1)
economic insecurity and poverty-related stress, (2) quarantines and social isolation, (3) disaster and conflict-related unrest and instability, (4) exposure to exploitative relationships due to changing demographics, (5) reduced health service availability and access to first responders, (6) inability of women to temporarily escape abusive partners, (7) virus-specific sources of violence, (8) exposure to violence and coercion in response efforts, and (9) violence perpetrated against health care workers. We also suggest additional pathways with limited or anecdotal evidence likely to effect smaller subgroups. Based on these mechanisms, we suggest eight policy and program responses for action by governments, civil society, international and community-based organizations. Finally, as research linking pandemics directly to diverse forms of VAW/C is scarce, we lay out a research agenda comprising three main streams, to better (1) understand the magnitude of the problem, (2) elucidate mechanisms and linkages with other social and economic factors and (3) inform intervention and response options. We hope this paper can be used by researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to
help inform further evidence generation and policy action while situating VAW/C within the broader need for intersectional gender- and feminist-informed pandemic response.

Not That Bad: Review and reflection

The week after I watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on television, I purchased an anthology of essays edited by Roxane Gay, Not That Bad (Harper 2018). The subtitle of this book is ‘Dispatches from Rape Culture,’ and I thought I would find more ideas, insights and words that I could then bring to the everyday work I get to do with Prajnya on gender-based violence.

It has taken me more than two months to make my way through this powerful book. In small part, this is a function of my life, but largely, it is because the essays are so powerful, so disturbing, so heart-breaking that you really cannot binge-read. They are also inspiring in their courage and exactly as I hoped, have left me with insights and words that I think will find their way to things I say and do in training sessions and workshops.

The essays–and I am using this word to describe what are mostly first-person testimonies, because they are written in the spectrum of styles that ‘essay’ covers–are almost all by survivors, of all genders, and include a couple of essays where the writers reflect on whether or not they gave consent. Through almost all the essays, the deeply internalised stigma attached to the experience of violence is expressed and sometimes rejected.

I am going to share some excerpts here, for several reasons. First, I don’t think I can summarise. Second, I want you to experience the power of the words, and maybe go read this book. Third, there are people out there who cannot afford this book and will not have a library from where they can borrow it. This is not meant to undermine copyright or sales, and I do hope lots of people will read this. Women should read this because it will resonate so strongly, as most of us live with the experience and all of us with the fear of sexual violence. Men should read it to know what that really means in our heads and in our days. And yes, the book is full of potential triggers, so if you think you will be sensitive to them, tread cautiously (these excerpts are for you too).

The idea that what happens to us, is not so bad, is so deeply ingrained that it stops survivors from seeking help. If you survived, that’s already not so bad, is it?

At least you weren’t killed. At least you have access to medical care. At least you have insurance. At least you have wonderful friends. Because the ones who tell me this are my friends and my teachers and the social worker and the doctor, I hold their words and outstretched hands even though my anger is mounting and I want not to be touched.

These days, I speak few words, and I certainly don’t have the vocabulary to dismantle what’s been forced on me by people called safe. I don’t have the breath to say: No, I will not be grateful for my rights. I will stand with two feet on this earth and I will always say thank you when somoene does something kind and sorrt when I’ve done something wrong and never outside of that. And, yes, I am furious that I am pulled between poles of gratitude and apology–both of which are violent erasures.

Thank goodness I wasn’t killed.

I’m sorry I’m so inarticulate.

I can’t name it then, but I feel the words at least eroding my voice. I sense that “at least” marks an end to the story I’m supposed to tell, that I’m supposed to say something gracious in response–“thank goodness”–or else nothing more at all. “At least” curbs my telling too much truth. It’s a blunt instrument wielded to club a reckless retelling into submission. The story ends here. But the truth is, I have no story–nothing I can corral into a coherent narrative.” (Claire Schwartz, pages 35-36)

I found this extremely powerful: “pulled between poles of gratitude and apology–both of which are violent erasures.” The week I bought this book and even when I picked it up to read in December 2018, in India we were witnessing a cascade of #MeToo revelations, that began with women in media and then spread to some other fields. Most of the women encountered the stock responses: Why now? Why not earlier? Why did you continue to work with this person? Many of the experience reported were not rape as traditionally defined (vaginal penetration without consent), so really, they should have been grateful, people seemed to be saying. Gratitude for that, and apology for upsetting the apple-cart.

Ally Sheedy in her essay mentions Hollywood’s #MeToo moment in 2017. She writes:

“This isn’t about naming names. I don’t have enough for a lawsuit, but I do have enough for a broken heart/ spirit. Nothing will change in Hollywood. Some men will get careful. Some men will pretend they never behaved like predators and wait this out. What’s so disheartening is knowing Harvey Weinstein’s sick actions will be addressed (finally) and yet the entire culture and context for his sick shit will remain in place.” (pages 112-113)

Just four months after India’s season of revelations, hardly anyone has been punished, and some are already being gently rehabilitated into public life. The defamation cases filed against the women who made the charges–those remain.

How commonplace sexual violence is, is something women at least know intuitively. This exchange in Stacey May Fowles’ essay underlines that, but also makes me wish we could so sensitize doctors, counsellors and nurses in India so that they would respond to survivors with sensitivity.

“When I finally managed to splutter out “something bad happened to me,” she just knew.

Without saying a word, she slipped a small square of yellow paper across the desk toward me. It was printed with information about the rape-counseling clinic.

I was struck by the ease with which she provided me with the contact, as if she’d done it hundreds of times before.” (page 279-280)

A counselor says to Fowles, “Every one believes there is suffering worse than her own, that they should be strong enough to cope without me.” It’s not that bad, why seek help? And if it were that bad, how come you are alive to seek help? How many Indian, Southasian girls can go to a doctor or a hospital and get help, leave alone expect sensitivity? We have tried in a small way to change this, but there is such a long way to go.

So Mayer writes about words, enjoyed and deployed as weapons of control (page 136). She titles her chapter Floccinaucinihilipilification and quotes the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “The action or habit of estimating something as worthless.” Gaslighting, sealioning, lollipopping, Cordelia-ing and mansplaining–she gathers all these words into this suitably long one (page 137).

So Mayer’s essay compares rape to colonialism, calls them “kin” (page 140). She writes:

“…I learned the blazing insight that rape was not an act between an individual and an individual, hidden in a dark room… Rape was and is a cultural and political act: it attempts to remove a person with agency, autonomy, and belonging from their community, to secrete them and separate them, to depoliticize their body by rendering it detachable, violable, nothing. (page 140)

…When we talk about sexual violnce as feminists, we are–we have to be–talking about its use to subjugate entire peoples and cultures, the annihilation that is its empty heart. Rape is that bad because it is an ideological weapon. Rape is that bad because it is a structure: not an excess, not monstrous, but the logical conclusion of heteropatriarchal capitalism. It is what that ugly polysyllabic euphemism for state power does.” (pages 140-141)

Michelle Chen also writes about the politics of sexual violence in her essay on the violence experienced by women who are displaced or in flight. “The place where sexual violence is most readily weaponized is the one where other social instruments have become unhinged: the interface between two societies. Sexual domination, a familiar pillar of every nation-state’s culture, fills the liminal spaces opened by mass displacement.” (page 191) As Warsan Shire wrote in her poem, Home: “and one prison guard/ in the night/ is better than a truckload/ of men who look like your father.”

In the final essay in the book, Elissa Bassist lists all the reasons why she stayed in a violent relationship and did not think of it as ‘violence.’ This is one of the most heart-breaking essays in the book.  She says, in more powerful words than I could summarise that she stayed because she and her boyfriend were both a product of their milieu, which is misogynistic and violent. She closes the book by saying:

“Because worst-case scenario is murder.

Oh, because it wasn’t that bad.” (page 339)

We become accustomed to the language of violence, the culture of rape. It is us, as we know ourselves. 

“Violence in a family comes down through generations: long before my father (finally) left my mother, her father left her mother, and her father’s father left my great-grandmother…

Sometimes by mother tells me stories about her father, or stories about my father. They are not mine to repeat. “I want you to know,” she tells me, as if she feels guilty for explaining our history to me. I am amazed at how much violence we can contain–internalize, suppress, hold on to, narrate. How much we can swallow and still survive.” (So Mayer, pages 132-133)

Women who speak about the violence they experience, who name their assailants or harassers and who express anger are accused of making trouble. Speaking about their experience of violence, several of the survivors writing in this book talk about how this feels.

“Forgive the abuser. The only solution for female anger is for her to stop being angry.

And yet, when Jesus flipped tables in the temple, his rage was lauded. King David railing to the heavens to rain fire on his enemies is lauded as a man after God’s own heart. An angry man in cinema is Batman. An angry male musician is a member of Metallica. An angry male writer is Chekhov. An angry male politician is passionate, a revolutionary. He is a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders. The anger of men is a powerful enough tide to swing an election. But the anger of women? That has no place in government, so it has to flood the streets.” (Lyz Lenz, page 164)

Amy Jo Burns writes: “The truth no one told you is that, in order for a good girl to survive, she must make some things disappear.” (page 167)

This includes the memory of violence, the name of your harasser, the resultant trauma and every one of those inconsequential details from that consequential moment–what you were wearing, the colour of that vase, the food on the table, the light in the room. As Dr. Ford said“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” We never forget, but we must. It wasn’t that bad, after all.

(Cross-posted from here.) 

Lessons learned on sexual harassment in 2018: Article

“We re-learned it is not only epidemic but endemic. This is so because gender is pervasive. Masculinity sexualizes hierarchy, and much of social life is hierarchically organized. Sexual harassment is a creature of hierarchy—gender combined with inequality based on race, age, class, disability, and sexuality. Anything that places a person in a less powerful or lower status position, an unequal position, heightens the risk of that person being sexually harassed.”

Catherine MacKinnon, Ask an activist: What are the most important lessons learned on sexual harassment in this last year of activism? UN Women,  Tuesday, December 11, 2018.

Do no harm: 8 don’ts for the fight against gender violence

(This article first appeared on the DNA website on November 25, 2016, on the first day of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. It is reposted here as an option for those who find the original image-heavy page hard to access.)



Do no harm: 8 don’ts for the fight against gender violence

Swarna Rajagopalan

We appear to be on the cusp of an age where it is not acceptable to endorse gender-based violence in public. This is not our destination—the elimination of gender-based violence—but it is a few steps down the path from a few decades ago when a column on the subject may have used genteel euphemisms and lamented the loss of virtue of our sisters and daughters. This unprecedented promise of a consensus must be celebrated and International Day for the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women (November 25) presents a great opportunity.

This year, I would like to offer a list of “Don’ts” (or rather, “Let’s nots”) in the struggle to end sexual and gender-based violence.

1. Let’s not protect women

“How can we keep women safe?” or “Can you give some tips to women to stay safe?” may be the most common questions we get asked in the course of our gender violence awareness work in Chennai. Fair enough, we are all concerned about the safety of those we love. However, the protectionist approach is problematic. First, it robs women of their own agency— that is, their ability to think and decide for themselves what they want to do. Second, it equates them (us) with other things we want to keep safe— our keys, our papers, our money or our address books! Third, it ends up limiting their freedom in ways that have terrible consequences for their lives. From being draped in so much cloth that you cannot run or swim to safety to not being able to go to school or to work, all because you may not be safe, thinking that something might happen along the way— the impulse to protect is experienced as the will to stifle. Fourth, protection presumes there are safe places in the world. A girl is safe because she is home. A woman is safe because she only sees the men of her family. In an age when even the womb is not a safe place for female offspring, this is a dangerous illusion. Finally, protectionism is a form of denial. The problem is not with those who are vulnerable to violence—regardless of gender—but with those inclined to use violence as a means of demonstrating control or even a normal language of human interaction. The problem is social inequality, in this case caused by patriarchy. By focusing on protection, we choose not to address the real problem at all.

2. Let’s not talk about women being our mothers, sisters and daughters

Women are human beings.When an incident of violence happens, well-meaning individuals speak up against it, and one of the most common responses in India relates the victim to family: “She was someone’s daughter” or “We all have mothers, sisters and daughters at home” or “The government needs to explain why our sisters and daughters are not safe.” Family is very important to most Indians. However, violence is something to condemn regardless of who experiences violence and whether or not she is a mother, daughter or sister. Sometimes, people say of a rape victim, “She should have addressed him/them as ‘brother,’ he/they would have left her alone.” What we know about child abuse and incestuous rape belies that hope. An attack on a family member—anyone’s family member—is read as an attack on their honour. This view makes sexual violence during conflict situations (including communal violence) seem perfectly logical—attack a woman’s body and you actually attack the collective honour of a community. The point is that an incident of violence is not unequivocally wrong because it hurts somebody’s relative or someone’s notion of their honour but because it hurts a human being.

3. Let’s not talk about hanging and shooting people

Something in us hankers for the old ways of justice. “An eye for an eye,” as the Bible phrases it, suggests that reciprocity is justice. It sounds immediate, decisive and punitive in a way that Indian courts have not been. Filing a complaint takes a long time and justice sometimes remains a dream. In such a context, we vacillate between wanting instant, summary and harsh justice and a frightening indulgence, especially when the accused is powerful. The indulgence is unconscionable because we know that if a person is able to get away with sexual harassment or violence once, they are likely to try it again. Silence and indulgence create a trail of victim/survivors where there should be none. On the other hand, calls for castration, public execution or a shooting gallery are also red flags. When I was very young and attending one of India’s first feminist conferences with older cousins, I remember hearing this argument against mandating very harsh punishments— that judges would hesitate to convict someone. There was, we were told, a better chance of getting a conviction with a moderate sentence. A greater likelihood of conviction might serve as a better deterrent than a rare conviction with a very harsh sentence. After all, summary and violent justice in centuries past has not cured us of our will to dominate through violence.

4. Let’s not underestimate men

Patriarchy gives men very little credit, molly-coddling them in a million ways. All the advantages they are meant to enjoy also end up limiting their potential as human beings. Time and again, in conversations about legal protections against gender violence, women worry about how they will make men vulnerable to false accusations. We tend to respond by explaining that the percentage of false cases is relatively low. The argument we should be making is this: Men can and should be trusted to think that gender-based violence or sexual harassment are serious enough violations to create redressal processes and guarantees of justice. We should give them credit, as thinking and caring human beings, for understanding that every law or regulation comes with the potential for misuse but that is not an argument against trying to deliver justice. Traffic and taxation are classic examples, and yet we have not abandoned traffic regulations or tax.

Patriarchy trains us to have unrealistic expectations of each other, regardless of gender. Thus it happens that the resistance to transforming gender relations comes as much from women as it does from men. The resistance comes from the habit of protecting men and it also comes from women’s own comfort level with patriarchy, having grown up in its shade. This sometimes leads us to invite men into our struggles not as partners but to lend it the authority patriarchy invests in them. Men can be partners and apprentices too; their commitment to change need not be contingent on leadership roles.

5. Let’s not be limited by patriarchy in the solutions we seek

We are all products of a patriarchal society, even when we reject it. It shapes our self-images, our relationships and our ways of being more than we would like to admit. Nowhere is the stranglehold of this iniquitous system greater than in the way we imagine justice. For many of us, the most outrageous instance is the idea that when a rapist marries his survivor, justice has been done. There is a rationale for this judgement—which is that the survivor has to go back to live in a society for which the damage to family honour and her marriage prospects outweigh her own trauma. The hardship caused by stigma is assessed as being greater than the trauma caused by violence. This is admittedly a realistic understanding of the world, but do we want to understand such a world so well that we are unable to change it? Instead, if people in positions of authority could speak up against such views and if judges would temper a different judgement with a reasoned argument, perhaps we would inch towards different social outcomes. In short, if patriarchy is going to dictate to us what is right and what is feasible, we will never be able to escape its clutches. We need to be able to ignore its very loud ‘voice of reason’ that booms at us with great conviction and free our imagination of justice.

6. Let’s not forget that gender violence is part of a larger social complex of injustice

The fight against gender violence is one part of the campaign for gender equality which in turn is a part of our on-going quest for social justice— so that all our iniquities are implicated in perpetuating each other. Moreover, all of us have more than one identity at a time— among other things, I am a woman, a Bombayite, a person who enjoys great class and caste privilege, presently resident in Chennai, an academic, a Tamil-speaker, an Elphinstonian, an NGO person, a South Asian, an Indian, a middle-aged person, and, of course, a human being. All my identities intersect as much as all forms of injustice reinforce each other. This is what younger feminists call intersectionality, a new word for an old idea. Previous generations learnt this idea as a key Marxist contribution to thinking about society. Look at structures, we learned; they impact each other and transform how people live and work and interact across their various identities. Fix the structures, we were told, to fix the injustice. Therefore, while concern about women may be immediate and most important to someone, women’s rights cannot be won in isolation of other people’s rights, and gender justice is incomplete without other forms of social justice. It’s just arithmetic: no one is equal unless everyone is.

7. Let’s not adjust to violence for any reason

Indians love the word ‘adjust;’ we urge each other to adjust to anything— no change, wrong size, less salt, bad toilets, no water, abusive speech, demonetization and interpersonal violence, to name a few things to which we are best advised to adjust. We teach young girls to adjust their personalities so that they do not outshine the men in the room. We adjust to discrimination because that is just our karma. We have proverbs that justify anger in men— an angry man is a just man, for instance. “If she took better care of her house, he would not beat her.” “You should understand that men face frustrations at work.” “It must be so hard for him to have to ask for help all the time.” Understand. Adjust. “Things will be alright once you have children.” Adjust, until then. If we are serious about ending gender violence, we should stop adjusting to it. There is no justification—absolutely no justification—for violent behaviour. Violence is not an acceptable language in human (or any) relationships.

8. Let’s not delegate responsibility for eliminating gender violence

“If we had better laws, we would not have so much violence.” Or, “laws are the problem; we have lousy laws.”

“On the other hand, our laws are excellent, but they are not implemented.”

“Law enforcement in India is terrible.”

“The police are corrupt, the police are insensitive, the police are brutal, the police are hand-in-glove with politicians, the police are retrogressive.”

“Don’t blame policemen, they are paid so badly. What about our courts?”

“Such a backlog, such delay— justice delayed, justice denied. What do lawyers care?”

“And those politicians! The statements they make!”

“Media, my god, the media are so irresponsible!”

“What are you NGOs doing? You should be out there fighting for all the poor victims!”

There may be more than a kernel of truth in all these statements but there is one truth that never gets listed— we are the problem. We have laws and rights but we do not bother to learn about them. We do not educate ourselves to recognise or understand the problem. When faced with the reality of gender violence, we pick platitudes and denial. We do not want to know too much about bystander intervention because, my god, would you actually want to get involved? If we do not recognise that we have a problem, we cannot invoke the laws that will get us justice. So where we sit, we are still far from the police, the lawyers and the courts we dismiss. We do not care enough to learn about support services nor to volunteer with them or raise funds for them. Content to adjust to and ignore a problem, we are complicit every time someone suffers physical, emotional or any other kind of abuse. And this makes US a problem without a solution. And so I will end with my first ‘do’ in this article: Let’s take responsibility.

If we are aware of these ‘don’ts’ as we commit to this important cause, we make a constructive beginning. Let’s take responsibility and let’s do this right!

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training. She founded Prajnya which organises the Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, a public education initiative on sexual and gender-based violence, from November 25-December 10 every year.


Workplace Sexual Harassment: SHEROES series on ‘what to do’

SHEROES has been publishing a series of posts on workplace sexual harassment that are a useful resource on the subject. We are posting links to the series here as a way of extending their reach.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act – Introduction
March 26th, 2014

What To Do Before Approaching Complaints Committee – The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Law
April 4th, 2014

Steps To Be Taken In Case Of Sexual Harassment At Work
April 10th, 2014

Procedure After Filing Complain with ICC – The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Law,2013
April 17th, 2014

What can a woman do if the employer has not constituted the ICC – The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Law,2013
April 25th, 2014


Sexual harassment at the workplace: Lessons learned about how to do things right

This week, everyone’s talking about workplace sexual harassment. And we’re also talking about compliance with the law—both the Vishaka guidelines and the new April 2013 law, which are similar but quite different from each other.

We have had the privilege of working with organizations in the private and the public sector on this question and while we have a very realistic sense of the levels of awareness about this issue and the law, and how rare compliance is, we are also able to be very optimistic because of the people we work with.

About a year ago, the HR person at a firm that does aeronautical design got in touch with us to inquire about gender sensitization workshops. We were drowning in campaign work and as we tried to coordinate schedules more than six months slipped away. When we had all but forgotten about this exchange, the MD of the company got in touch. From there, things moved quickly because the timing was much better for all concerned.

We were in for a wonderful surprise. The team we were working with had a much bigger vision than just writing a policy, forming a committee and checking off the compliance box. As the MD kept saying, they wanted to make the committee redundant and the way to do this was to create and sustain a work culture based on equality and mutual respect.

Together, we created an action plan. We would start with short training workshops on workplace sexual harassment—what it is, how the law defines it, how to respond to it and responsibilities at the corporate and individual level. We would help the company put together a policy in conformity with Indian law and to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee. We would also work with a self-selected group of employees who wanted to do awareness work on gender issues. But that was not enough—they also asked us to facilitate the beginnings of a conversation on interpersonal relations in a time of diversity and rapid change. Moreover, the company plans on refresher activities and ways to get everyone to rededicate themselves to these values every year.

We really admire the commitment this company is making to creating a more gender-equitable workplace. Their efforts pre-dated the new law; even pre-dated the Delhi gang-rape which for so many was the first time they had given gender violence any thought. Their efforts excluded no one—the MD and the newest employee attended training on an equal footing. And every single person in the company was required to attend. There is active interest in going further and following up, and willingness to take ownership of the ideas and the process.

The good news is that just as we were working with this company, another one from a completely different industry called us to talk about the same things. When we mentioned the kinds of work we were doing here, they became more expansive and talked about broader issues. Most people think it is enough to train the HR people in a company, but what the management teams in both these companies understand instinctively is that for an idea, a new value system, to take root and be shared, everyone–every single person–needs to be a part of (and party to) the change.

When organizations invite NGOs in, they graciously keep referring to our domain expertise. The truth is, and we try to say it as much as we can, that we are all learning and learning from each other. No one enters into any work with domain expertise, just with a will to do one’s best and a promise to learn as much as one can towards that end. We have reflected on what we have learned before, but if I were now to update this list it would include the following.

  1. It is not enough to set up a policy and committee, although setting them up is a vast improvement on not setting them up.
  2. While the law mandates a policy, a committee and awareness training now, that training has to go beyond a perfunctory session with HR people and it has to be ongoing.
  3. The most important component might well be the management and owners’ commitment to the issue—which becomes evident in their willingness to put time and resources into this work; which becomes evident in their willingness to cooperate with and support the work of the Internal Complaints Committee without diminishing their autonomy. This commitment and support should also extend to situations where the Committee and/or its members are personally attacked for their work.

In many ways, the new law is harder to implement than the Vishaka Guidelines, whose clarity and simplicity meant that compliance was first and foremost about the spirit of their provisions rather than their letter. It becomes all the more important that those working on workplace sexual harassment approach the process of change holistically—looking at attitudes, manners and relationships as much as anything else. Given our work experience in the last year, we now believe this is actually a feasible action plan. For this learning and the hope that it gives us, we are very grateful to the partners that we have in this work.

Introducing the 2013 Campaign Coordinator

The search for a Campaign Coordinator was unusually tough this year because we had such a large set of really great candidates. After much deliberation, we invited Nithila Kanagasabai to join our team. Nithila, who takes charge today, comes to us after years in journalism and graduate work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

With this, the 2013 Campaign season begins in full earnest at Prajnya! We enter it with the usual nervous excitement.

Sexual harassment at the workplace: Lessons learned about the way things work

For about a year now, we have been working in the area of workplace sexual harassment. This has taken three forms: participating in the complaints committee process; running short workshops upon request and organizing larger campaign-time programmes to raise awareness. As usual, we stumbled into this work, responding to a need, and have been learning as we’ve gone along.

The complaints committee work has taught me a lot of things I hadn’t really thought about or read or come across before. Given how little people have written about this issue and the process of complaints and redressal, I have wanted to share my learning in some form. Please note, these are just my observations, open to further learning or correction. I share these in the spirit of a journal entry.

When organizations set up WSH committees, they start out by saying there are no cases (we are so special, so lucky!). Well, there are no cases because there is no known redressal process. But the Vishakha guidelines and the new law require companies to make known their policy, their process and the composition of their complaints committee. Cases first come sporadically. Then, as word gets out that a committee is serious and people hear of completed enquiries and action taken, more cases come in. In this phase, several are patently false complaints or cases where the nature of the committee’s work is not understood. This is an important phase for the organization and the employees to learn more about the issue and the committee’s report could be instructive in spelling out the definition of this form of workplace violence.

What is very clear, in case after case, is that no one seems to know exactly what constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace. Is it a particular kind of harassment, harassment directed at women or harassment of any sort experienced by a woman? Sometimes complainants are ignorant, and we learn that while their actual complaint may not fit the legal definition, other experiences do. In that case, we can at best flag those other experiences in some way. Sometimes, the accused and co-workers do not know what kind of behaviour constitutes sexual harassment. We have also seen this lack of clarity on the part of the organisation which might forward all complaints by women to the sexual harassment complaints committee. I am beginning to think training to introduce what sexual harassment is, should be mandatory for any working person.

It’s not just the legal definition that matters in sexual harassment cases; knowing where lines are to be drawn also matters in a time of rapid change in the workplace and in society. Having often grown up in virtual segregation, young men and women have to learn ways to interact with each other in college and the workplace. What is acceptable behaviour and what is not, is something that both sides have to learn. For men, this might involve learning how to respect physical space (you cannot move your chair close to hers without it feeling like harassment), or that when you discuss a woman (client or colleague) sexually in front of other women, they read it (rightly) not as your opinion but as misogynistic violence. For women, it is learning what their rights are in a workplace, and it is also learning to rightly code a reprimand for poor performance as different from a sexual proposition or insult. The rarity of good working environments for women (starting from the absence of decent, safe women’s toilets) express gender discrimination in so many ways that it is hard not to read everything as sexual harassment or harassment based on gender discrimination. But it is important to learn the difference in order that the gravity of the offence of workplace sexual harassment is not undermined by misfiled charges. Moreover, where it is hard for complainants to continue in the same office once they have filed charges, it is that much more difficult if the committee finds the complaint unfounded or frivolous.

In each and every case, the hearing process reveals office skeletons. Ledgers misplaced, accounts that have been cooked, attendance that has been faked, informal working arrangements that violate the rules, mishandled procedures… the whole gamut of workplace improprieties are revealed as each person speaks to the committee. These are beyond the scope of a sexual harassment committee and we can only flag these discoveries as a postscript. The larger point is that just as poor governance in a state creates a climate where women and sexual minorities are more vulnerable to violence; a poorly run organization where other systems are malfunctioning creates a facilitating environment for sexual harassment. This is an important point for senior management people to note: the incident may be in a very small team of your large organization but when the other skeletons tumble out, the buck stops at the top. Not all the gender diversity and equality consultants can fix the rot in the system at this stage.

One thing that should have been obvious but that I did not really think about is the role that internal politics can play. I don’t mean interpersonal politics, which are obviously the heart of any such case, but the politics of trade unions and communal and caste relations in small places or the patron-client networks that run up and down an organization’s hierarchy. In small towns, work relationships are also embedded in familial, local and communal interactions and listening to testimonies, sooner or later, everything seems to be grist to the mill. This makes for very painful listening but also for stories where what happened in the context of work is only a small part of a much larger saga—most of which is germane to the complaint but outside the purview of the committee’s work.

One consequence of delays in hearing cases is that more ledgers are misplaced, of course! Another practical consequence is that given a committee of three-five individuals of whom one is an outsider (by law), it is possible that any one of them has moved away. It is always desirable to have the same committee members through the hearings of a single case. Delay also allows for frantic networking across the organizational hierarchy, lobbying for sympathy and support. Solidarities fray; for instance, those who signed on in support of the complainant start to “forget” details or even to deny knowledge of their signatures being on a certain document. Or they might genuinely start to forget. In the regrouping that can follow—after all both complainant and accused are colleagues—it can get very hard to get at what actually happened. While complaints committees are not courts, a delay even in their work also results in justice not being done.

I want to write about the role that the NGO/outside member plays in the complaints process. It is an essential one in that the committee cannot be constituted without such a member; however, it is really hard for people to find such persons who will serve. First, this is because most NGOs (including us) are microscopically small teams for whom finding a suitable person who can also spare the time is really hard. If the hearing is out of town, it is not just the day of the hearing that is lost but also time lost in travel. And if like us, everyone volunteers, then they also have to make the time in their livelihood schedule. Second, there is a sense that maybe one is not competent to serve on such a technical committee. After all, there is no training on how to be an NGO/outside member, and everyone is not a lawyer. Third, reimbursements apart, there is always some cost incurred by the NGO—and with scarce resources, another organization’s compliance with legal directives is not a high priority.  One way around this is to empanel several NGOs so in each geographical area, you have a local person, but this is easier said than done.

Finally, I have begun to wonder why so much of the discussion around workplace sexual harassment centres around white collar, corporate workplaces when it was a rural social worker’s complaint that laid the foundation for the law and when most of India still works in non-white collar, urban settings. Are we thinking about and training enough in those spaces? I think not.

A debate on trafficking

On April 2, 2012, Gloria Steinem addressed a Delhi audience at an event to mark the tenth anniversary of ‘Apne Aap,’ an anti-trafficking organization. Her speech has stimulated a debate on trafficking among Indian feminists and social activists.

Here is a link to her remarks, and this is a blogpost by Ammu Joseph that summarises the ensuing debate.

Taking action against honour killings: A report from Sindh

Sohail Sangi, Sindhi women publicly announce free-will marriages,, September 3, 2011.

HYDERABAD: Honour killings and forced marriages in Sindh receive wide attention in the national media. What is less well-known is that young women from the province frequently publish announcements in Sindhi newspapers declaring their intention to marry of their own free will.

As a way of fending off allegations that they have been kidnapped or have committed adultery, it is a bold move by these women but is known to few people beyond the readership of these regional papers.

Shabana Khatoon, 23, of Bhango Behan in Khairpur district, declares in widely circulated Sindhi daily Kawish that her parents wanted to sell her to an older man for marriage. Ms Khatoon’s announcement is a summary of an attested affidavit she had a lawyer prepare for her and explains that she decided to run away and marry another man, Ghulam Murtaza Burero, in accordance with Islamic law.

She adds that no one has kidnapped her and that she is making the declaration as an adult in full possession of her senses. In case her parents register a case against her, her husband or his parents, it should be considered fake. Her statement, she says, is meant for purposes of record in case her parents move against her.

Shakeela Sheikh of Umerkot district also seeks protection through an announcement in the same paper, stating that she is divorced and left her parents’ house to marry Ali Ghulam Chandio when they tried to get her remarried against her will. Guddi of Badin announces that her parents got her engaged to Asghar Ali, who used to bear the expenses of her family, but now want to marry her off to a man offering better compensation.

Couples like Ms Shabana and Mr Burero normally first contact a lawyer who prepares an affidavit based on their story that is attested by a judicial magistrate or notary public. They then have a nikah and announce it by publishing an advertisement commonly titled “dhiyan talab” (“seeking attention”) or “qasam namo” (“sworn affidavit”). Some approach a local court to solemnise their marriages, also asking for protection from their families for fear of being declared karo-kari.

A study carried out by Kawish shows that an average of four to five couples announce these free-will marriages in the paper each day, and an executive in charge of advertisements there says this number can be as high as eight or nine a day. The men and women belong to a wide range of districts, tribes and castes of Sindh, including its Hindu communities, although most do not come from affluent families.

Couples who come to the newspaper’s officers are sometimes too poor to afford regular rates, are often scared for their lives, and sometimes send a relative or lawyer instead of risking a visit themselves. Before publishing the advertisements the newspaper asks for signatures and NICs from the couples, attested affidavits, and photographs of the women involved.

Mayaram Rathi, a manager who handles advertising for daily Ibrat, explains that this is not a new phenomenon and that such advertisements have been published for the last three decades. They include various kinds of cases ranging from teenage girls being forced to marry much older men, women being forced to marry men they don’t know and parents breaking engagements for monetary reasons.

In some instances the announcements are published by Hindu girls who have chosen Muslim husbands. They declare that they have converted to Islam, often adding that they were inspired by Muslim neighbours they had been visiting since their childhoods. One reason for the women to opt for this bold step is to prevent harassment by police or simply to seek the protection of law enforcers and the judicial system from their families, who lodge FIRs of theft or kidnapping, pressurise the couples through their communities or seek the help of jirgas.

But according to social worker Lala Hassan Pathan, who has been working on cases of violence against women and free-will marriages for the last seven years, police seldom take note of these announcements or keep them on record. The couples themselves send clippings to local police officers, who rarely take action based on them and sometimes register kidnapping cases on the parents’ behalf despite the existence of these declarations under oath.

According to Mr Pathan, men who end up in police custody for kidnapping in such cases are often tortured while the women are pressurised and sometimes taken away by parents with the knowledge of police. Judges in lower courts, he says, also tend to be unsympathetic towards the couples in free-will cases.

According to women’s rights activist Arfana Mallah, however, the attitude of the lower judiciary towards women is changing and lawyers are now able to go to court with these affidavits without needing the support of NGOs or influential members of civil society.

On the other hand, she says, the publication of these announcements may provoke parents and other relatives and has been followed by the women’s deaths in some instances. Using the media is a double-edged sword for the women of Sindh; the same declarations that can save them from honour killings can also leave them vulnerable to even more angry reprisals.

The comments are equally interesting, and you can read them online at the original location of this article.