Indian society is in a stage of rapid transition. In case of social development, we as a nation have made progress in various sectors and have repealed, modified and abolished those laws which were redundant in the present context. We have also framed various laws to protect women, children and vulnerable sections of society. They are all welcome steps towards achieving gender equality.
Till about the 1960s, presence of women in the work force was negligible. With increase in women’s education gradually it started coming up and now in 2019 there is a healthy sex ratio at work. This has brought tremendous changes in work culture and also its own challenges.
Pressure at work places results in imbalance of social and personal life. There are situations in almost every office setting that men and women end up working in teams of twos or more. Depending on their work profile, at times they are expected to work beyond office hours. They are also expected to travel together for work. This leads to situations where a man and a woman may be alone most of the time. Such situations are prevalent in every work setting but are more so in the private-sector setting where there is pressure to remain lean and mean when it comes to workforce. This can lead to various issues.
Both men and women rightfully want appreciation, recognition and promotion at work which in the present times is in short supply. In a typical private work setup this leads to various issues and competition which turns unhealthy as one moves up the corporate ladder. This is especially true in case of promotion, increments and satisfactory job performance. There have been instances where men are alleged to have made some untoward gestures both verbal and physical at work.
One factor that may help explain the difference in perception is social conditioning. An interesting cultural point here is the regional differences in gestures and physical contact which is often open to subjective interpretation. For example, generally speaking, people of some regions are more open to physical contact like hugs and handshakes with members of the opposite sex and people from other parts of the country may not be appreciative of such contacts. Further, everyone has her or his own way of expressing themselves which is subjected to personal interpretations.
These instances have been escalated to a higher level keeping in view the phenomenon which has always been looked from a woman’s perspective. In order to obtain a more holistic view of this issue, there is a dire need to change our stereotyped understanding of this issue. It is about time the phenomenon of sexual harassment is looked from a male perspective. Both men and women are alleged to have participated in these actions. But the issues have largely been reported by women. There are legal provisions specifically preventing women’s harassment at work place whereas there are none specifically protecting men. Therefore, these issues have been brought to the attention of the management usually by women only. Men either ignore or do not take it up beyond a casual mention to the related human resources focal point. The issue being sensitive, the management passes it to a committee constituted as per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. In most cases the committees are new and ill-trained to deal with these sensitive cases and therefore are not able to pass a sound judgment. In many cases the committees are formed not after a carefully thought-out process but as a routine, without going through legal provisions and thus proper representation as mandated by the law may be missing. One of the dissatisfied parties takes the case to court and endless fight for justice begins.
Often women are considered victims and gain everyone’s sympathy instantly and men are considered guilty at least ‘prima facie’. Reasons behind it are social norms. All women, irrespective of their status (education, etc.) are considered vulnerable. The phenomenon is seen as an issue of power or abuse of power. In the era of women empowerment, they too can abuse their power with men as victims. It may not be true in all the cases. The Act considers women as vulnerable, but when we consider other social determinants, any man or woman may lack empowerment.
In general men are considered more powerful. But this law and the national commission for women (NCW) have made empowered women or at least made them perceivably as powerful. The accused men are ‘punished’ socially, administratively and are adjudged as untouchable as far as their personal career perspectives are concerned. Anyone accused is considered guilty immediately and his ordeal for justice begins. He is abandoned by people around him. On the other hand, women bringing in such charges are hailed as brave and eulogised.
In most cases the accused is someone at a higher level than the alleged victim. The social discrimination begins as soon as charges surface. The constitution ensures that till such time, both the parties be provided similar treatment. The accused is either suspended or sent on a compulsory leave immediately to ensure an impartial enquiry. But the person alleging harassment is allowed to continue and thus begins victimisation of the accused in his absence when he is not there to defend himself. All the disgruntled elements in the organization start working together towards their vested interest and larger issue is forgotten. Everyone in the organization thinks that what’s there for them in this case and how can they use the situation to suit their end.
The woman is given legal assistance by law and the man is left at their own to fight and prove their innocence. In case he is innocent, this leaves them devastated mentally, financially and socially. He has no rights in the interim period for him and this could be years.
The law is open to misuse get even with someone higher up. Unfortunately, the man’s perspective – the right to live with dignity and the basic premise of jurisprudence that the accused is innocent till proven guilty – is often compromised. This calls for a way out to ensure equal treatment to both the sexes.
Finally, what if the accusation could not be proved either internally or through courts? How should such complainants be dealt with and what should be the possible compensation for the accused who has suffered financially, socially and professionally?
Jain is a faculty member at IIHMR University, Jaipur.