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Government Offices and Sexual Harassment
by T. Jahnavi Bookmark and Share
 

Government job! Lots of holidays, paid leave, job security, retirement benefits, and many more perks. But, to a lot of women in the city, a government job is increasingly coming to mean something else altogether - sexual harassment.

When Ela Sontakke of the Central Excise Department returned to her office following a weeklong training session, she found two obscene posters and a blue film CD in the drawer of her desk. Then, a male colleague came and asked her if she had found any such material....

After 15 years of unblemished service as an officer in the personnel department of a rural bank sponsored by the Bank of India, Roma Sharma suddenly found herself inundated with memos, and then transfer orders - after she resisted sexual advances from her new boss.

Aarti Apte, a senior employee of the National Civil Defence College, was on sick leave when a male colleague came home with a strange gift: two brassieres. He even forcefully hugged and kissed her, and left only when she threatened to call her neighbors.

Kamlabai Pendam, a peon in the National Civil Defence College, was called into the director's anteroom by an officer and was shocked to find him viewing a porn film on a large screen.

Sexual harassment at work is on the rise in the city's government offices and public sector banks, says noted woman social worker and advocate, Suraj Singh. Singh's organization, Centre for Human Rights and Environment, has received four cases of sexual harassment in the month of September, as against two in the past six months.

According to Singh, not much has changed for women who face sexual harassment in the workplace. Women are forced to approach social organizations and the courts because they fail to get justice in their own offices. This, despite the fact that the Supreme Court of India - in its landmark Vishakha judgement of August 1997 - recognized sexual harassment at the workplace as not only personal injury to the affected woman, but also a violation of fundamental rights.

Further, the Supreme Court guidelines (of 1997) make employers and institutions responsible for implementing both preventive and remedial measures to make the workplace safe for women.

Roma Sharma's complicated health problems necessitated easy access to medical help. Yet, she was transferred to a faraway village where it was impossible for her to get regular and quality medical treatment. Moreover, just before her departure, her immediate boss had her handbag - which contained articles of intimate use - searched in public without reason. She submitted a written complaint recently.

And Ela Sontakke's colleagues 'advised' her to forgive and forget that porn was deliberately planted in her desk drawer because the men apologized and were transferred. However, the three men continue to threaten and taunt her, and are still indulging in character assassination.

According to social workers, government offices are doing precious little to protect their women employees against sexual harassment. Despite orders to this effect having been issued about one and a half years ago, no government department apart from the Central Excise department has bothered to constitute a committee to deal with cases of sexual harassment.

The excuses for not doing so are typical: "We never expected such things to happen in our office" or "No woman employee has demanded such a thing". And when the complaints do come up, the attitude of the authorities continues to be crude, dismissive and insensitive. When Sontakke decided to pursue her complaint, many of her senior colleagues told her that her experience was "nothing extraordinary", and that pushing it would not harm the men but only give her a bad name. Unfortunately, even senior women officers advised her to give up.

When Arti Apte complained about being harassed to K M Nandyal, director of the National Civil Defence College, he asked her to 'forgive' the offender because he "has recently lost his wife and is obsessed with the subject".  Nandyal also asked her to return the brassieres to the guilty officer.

It was only when an inquiry committee asked her to produce the said articles as evidence, that Apte realized her error in trusting the director. "He cunningly made me relinquish evidence," she says, "he was protecting his officer all along."

When peon Pendam found the same officer viewing pornography in the director's anteroom, and when she mustered up the courage to complain to Nandyal, he reprimanded her, "If you had complained immediately, we could have caught the man red-handed." That, says Singh, is hogwash. "How can an officer watch pornography in the director's own anteroom without his overt or covert consent?"

Not surprisingly, departmental inquiries inevitably favor the offenders and browbeat women into abandoning their complaints, say social workers. "In the inquiry held in Apte's case, no social worker was invited as part of the inquiry committee. In Pendam's case, I was called only on the day her statement was recorded. And there too, the committee members browbeat her mercilessly, saying it was her fault. In fact, both the inquiries were illegal," says Singh.

Social worker Savita Meghe says the inquiry committee on Ela Sontakke's case submitted its report without examining the witnesses to whom she had shown the brassieres. As a result, the men began to taunt her openly. It was only after higher authorities pointed out this lacuna that the committee began to examine the witnesses. The culprits were then suddenly transferred - even before the inquiry was complete.

A Y Rukmangad, Personnel Officer, Central Excise Department who headed the committee, refused to comment. "The inquiries are so lax," says Meghe, "that the men have absolutely no fear. During Sontakke's inquiry, they had the audacity to underplay the importance of their act by saying that they had not demanded sexual favors from her."

Another negative aspect of complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace is the alienation the complainants have to face - from not just male but also female colleagues. All four women - Ela, Aarti, Roma and Kamlabai - found other women in their respective organizations turning hostile the moment they decided to go official with their cases.

The question: "Why did it only happen to her, and not to anyone else?" is a standard one. Says Singh, "One of the reasons why departmental inquiries are ineffective and why harassed women are forced to approach social organizations or go to court is that the women's lobby continues to be weak. While the men readily defend each other even when guilt is apparent, women are very insecure regarding their social status. The traditional mindset that teaches a woman to cower rather than fight when faced by a male opponent is yet to change."

But with more courageous women like the four complainants themselves, advocate Singh and social worker Meghe, one can hope that more and more women will break their insecurities and their silence - to seek justice, and assert their fundamental rights.  

6-Oct-2002
More by :  T. Jahnavi
 
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