In Solidarity, October 16, 2018

We, the Prajnya community, express our solidarity with the women who have spoken out across professions to share their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, acknowledging the courage it takes and the pain that this involves.

We acknowledge too that this is the beginning and that countless others are still silent or unheard; that many workplaces remain unexamined; and moreover, that violence pervades our lives well beyond the workplace. The sexual harassment and sexual violence revelations of the last week have once more illustrated what we have always known—that violence and misogyny are deeply embedded in our society.

There is a role for each of us, wherever we are located, to play in the road ahead.

As human beings, we must bring empathy and compassion to our listening and as citizens, prioritise justice and fairness in our response. One in three women are said to experience violent abuse in their lifetime and only one in four of these women speak about it. To raise questions about the delay in reporting and the timing of these testimonials is to lie to ourselves that the world has always been a sympathetic and supportive place and that our institutions are committed to equality. Let us accept our complicity in silencing survivors, now, as then.

Both the Vishaka Guidelines and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, identify workplace sexual harassment as a violation of the fundamental right to equality. Non-compliance is thus tantamount to a violation of an employee’s fundamental right. We therefore urge organisations that have yet to comply with the 2013 law to put in place zero-tolerance policies, set up Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) and conduct sensitisation programmes for their entire team, including ICC members.

For its part, the government too has been a laggard in setting up the mechanisms required to support compliance with the law. In most districts, the administration has not set up Local Complaints Committees (LCCs) and in their absence, women working in the informal and unorganised sector, women working in shops and small organisations and self-employed women, including professionals, have nowhere to turn for justice. State governments must ensure that district administrations immediately set up LCCs; ensure their competence through training; and make known to the public how they can be reached.

Further, the enforcement infrastructure required by the law must also be a priority for the government. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, requires annual reporting but the government has neither set up nor announced to which office these reports must be sent and who will monitor and penalise non-compliance. We hope this tidal wave of revelations will move all levels of a lackadaisical Indian state to seriously create and provide resources for this infrastructure.

Political parties and their leaders must make a simple commitment that will have a lasting impact on gender inequality in India. They must promise never to nominate or endorse those who make misogynistic statements and those who have been charge-sheeted for sexual and gender-based violence, including street sexual harassment.

The government and political class have so far ignored our collective anguish and anger in the hope that they will pass. They will not. We will stand our ground.    

At Prajnya, we reiterate our commitment to facilitate conversations around gender-based violence including workplace sexual harassment and to encourage and support organisations in their journey, beginning with legal compliance but going beyond it towards equal, inclusive and safe workplaces.

The Prajnya Community
October 16, 2018

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#StopVAWIP: Profile of Wajeha Al-Huwaider

by Emma Kingscott

Saudi Arabia; a country known for its extreme wealth, financed by the oil and gas trade, and its extreme conservative Wahhabism ideals on which the state is governed. Yet here the reality for many women is a life of domestic incarceration. This is articulated in Wajeha Al-Huwaider’s description of Saudi Arabia as ‘the world’s largest women’s prison’.

Al-Huwaider is one of the few Saudi women who courageously stand up for the rights of women which are so explicitly denied.  The suppression of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is well documented, yet the state is still given the freedom to implement laws which prohibit women from going anywhere without the permission of a male guardian, being allowed to drive, given the right to vote or participate in sports. As a journalist and a campaigner, Al-Huwaider makes her voice heard in a state in which the authorities look to silence women. She became an activist and campaigner for women’s rights in order to free women from what she describes as the virtual jail of Saudi Arabia.

Al-Huwaider has set up a number of campaigns to attack the human right violations which women face in the state. After protesting for women’s rights in a peaceful, solo demonstration, she was arrested by the authorities and was banned from writing. She retaliated this disregard for freedom of speech by posting a video of herself driving on YouTube.

The restrictions on women’s speech and human rights in Saudi Arabia are a result of conservative interpretations of religion which promotes a patriarchal system of male guardianship and deliberate infantilization of women. Human rights activists are concerned for the implications this poses for women who are subjected to domestic violence and those who attempt to speak out against violence. Al-Huwaider for that reason founded the ‘Association for the Protection and Defence of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia’ which protects women against domestic abuse and provides activism for women’s rights. Protection of women and women’s rights is particularly necessary in Saudi Arabia where rape isn’t criminalised and has previously punished victims for speaking out against their sexual abuse. The Human Rights Watch reported a woman who was sentenced to 6 months in prison and given 200 lashes after taking her rape case to court. She was charged with ‘illegally mingling’ and accused of attempting to aggravate and influence the judiciary.

In 2011, Al-Huwaider was imprisoned for 10 months and banned from travelling outside of Saudi Arabia for trying to save a woman who had contacted her claiming that her abusive husband has locked her and her children in the house without food. Whilst on the way to help the woman escape, she was intercepted by the police and charged for ‘supporting a wife without her husband’s knowledge, thereby undermining the marriage.’ She believes this was a deliberate hoax by the authorities in a further attempt to silence her human rights work. It is apparent the work of Al-Huwaider and other rights activists is more important than ever when it becomes apparent that helping an abused woman in Saudi Arabia is considered a crime.

Furthermore, child marriage is still a wide spread practice in Saudi Arabia and there has been cases of girls as young as 9 being married to 70 year old men. Al-Huwaider has campaigned extensively against child marriages and managed to terminate a marriage between an 8 year old girl to a 50 year old man.  Al-Huwaider has been acknowledged for her advocacy of women’s rights and the Arabian Business Magazine named her one of the most powerful Arab women. Despite facing persecution from the state for her work, Wajeha Al-Huwaider remains a vehement voice for women’s human rights in Saudi Arabia.

References:
Human Rights Watch, 2007 https://www.hrw.org/news/2007/11/15/saudi-arabia-rape-victim-punished-speaking-out
Marler, 2013, http://www.wluml.org/fr/node/8774
Waheja Al-Huwaider, 2009, Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/14/AR2009081401598.html
Nela Duke, 2015, Wajeha Al- Huwaider: Citizen of the Week, http://ours-mag.com/2015/03/19/wajeha-al-huwaider-citizen-of-the-week/
Gatestone Institute, 2011, https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/1930/wajeha-al-huwaider-saudi-arabia
Pollitt, 2013, https://www.thenation.com/article/saudi-human-rights-activist-wajeha-al-huwaider-sentenced-prison/

This post was published as part of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence’s call for profiles of women human rights defenders.