What does women’s safety have to do with men?

What does Women’s Safety have to do with men?” asked a group of around 40 grinning men who were made to sit in a session on Women’s Safety and Sexual Harassment at Workplace. The group also had women, around 15 of them who were largely silent and sat looking down. Tongue-in-cheek, we told the men “When a woman’s safety is compromised, it will be you who goes to jail. So you might want to pay attention to this session.”

During the course of this session, which Bhaskar and I undertook for the employees of a micro-finance company, many thoughts stuck like a magnet in our mind. Why are men so casual about issues concerning women’s safety? Why do they feel that they have no role to play in it and act as if it is women creating problems for themselves? But perhaps the most rude awakening for us was when men laughed at the mention of gang rape. Actually laughed!

This write-up is a narration of our experience in undertaking a session on Women’s Safety and Sexual Harassment. The conversations and incidents are narrated as they happened and is not an attempt at generalization of behaviours of men and women. The write-up also gives links to the Act and IPC sections which might benefit readers.

The sessions we conduct

A typical session that we conduct includes

  • Interactive discussions on how safe the women feel and why they feel unsafe

  • What provisions does the law provide for women to take action if their safety is compromised

  • IPC sections focussing on crimes against women

  • What is the support system available for women in need of help (Vanita Sahaya Vani, the Woman’s helpline)

  • Details of the Act and how to implement it at their workplace.

Usually, at the beginning of the session, participants, especially men think of it as a waste of their time and act indifferent. However, as the session progress and they realize what sexual harassment actually means, they begin to realize the seriousness of the issue. The women on the other hand, begin by being really silent and by the end of the session, their entire body language is changed – confident, fearless and aware of their rights.

What men think of women

Although there were a few men among the participants who seemed to be sensitive towards women’s issues, the large majority were cut off from the reality of women’s issues and behaviour. When asked if women are safe in today’s times, curiously, it was the men who replied a loud NO (the women were still silent). When asked why, one man said “Women do not have the capacity to face issues”, another smart gentleman said “Women invite trouble with the way they dress.” We resisted replying immediately to these enlightening statements and saved our response for later in the session.

After some coaxing, some women mumbled about feeling unsafe when walking in a dark lane, travelling in an autorickshaw and so on. Then, a soft woman’s voice said “I think safety is in the mind. And we will be as safe as we feel”. Bravo!

Most often, women do not realize that much of their safety is in their hands. I had previously written a detailed write-up about this – Women’s safety: restoring sanity which speaks more about on this aspect of women’s safety.

IPC sections on crimes against women

In India, we have progressed quite a lot when it comes to legal provisions for women. And after the Delhi rape incident (Nirbhaya), amendments were made which further strengthened the law in favour of women. However, very few women even have a clue of their rights under the different IPC sections. For instance, did you know that something as common as stalking is now a criminal offense which could lead to imprisonment of up to 5 years and a fine? And for a repeat offender, it is non-bailable. Similarly, voyerism, disrobing a woman and sexual harassment have all been included under IPC 354. IPC section 509 empowers women to report cases of verbal abuse and covers any word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman.

All the amendments and IPC sections pertaining to women can be read at this linkhttp://wcdsc.ap.nic.in/InformationAbout/PPTs/10.Nirbhaya-IPC.pdf

The participants in the session we undertook were taken aback by the existing provisions and the men especially were shocked that something like stalking (which they admitted to doing in their younger days) is now a criminal offense.

Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 is a legislative act in India that seeks to protect women from sexual harassment at their place of work. Under this Act, every woman who is employed, including domestic help, is covered. The Act mandates every organization having more than 10 employees to have an Internal Complaints Commitee and a policy for dealing with Sexual Harassment. In case of domestic workers, they can directly approach the Local Complaints Commitee at a District level. If an organization does not have such a committee, they could be fined Rs. 50,000 and the license could be cancelled for subsequent failure to implement the Act.

Inspite of this, very few organizations have taken it seriously, and even fewer are aware of how to go about implementing it. The definition of Sexual Harassment under the Act, ruffled quite a few men in the session. According to the Act, Sexual Harassment includes a man committing any of the following acts—

i. physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; or

ii. a demand or request for sexual favours; or

iii. showing pornography against the will of a woman; or

iv. making sexually coloured remarks, shall be guilty of the offence of sexual harassment.

We made it a point to remind the men that all their previous comments about women being incapable of facing issues by virtue of being a woman, would come under the Act and is called making Sexually Coloured Remarks!

Most men do not realize that Sexual Harassment is not just about an offense which is sexual in nature. It also covers the most common form of discrimation against women at workplaces because of their sex. A number of women have experienced biased treatment at their workplace owing to their gender – they are paid lesser than male colleagues who do the same job; they are often told that they can’t do a certain type of work even if they are willing (ex. field work, travelling or night shifts); though they may be more qualified or capable, their male colleagues are promoted, etc.

The men in the session were quick to point out that the reason they ask women to not do certain type of work, ex. field work, is because they are trying to “protect” women and help them. Our response is simple “Let the woman decide. It is not for others to decide what she can and can’t do. You can at best ask her whether or not she wants to take up the task. But you do not have the right to decide on her behalf.”

Another point which left the men feeling quite uneasy was the fact that regardless of the intention of the man, if a woman feels harassed, then it is harassment. So if a man claims that he casually rests his hand on a woman’s shoulder and had no other intention, but if the woman feels that it intruded her private space or made her feel uncomfortable, then it is considered Sexual Harassment.

The men simply could not accept it. They felt that this was very difficult for men to understand or follow as any of their actions could be construed as Sexual Harassment, and a number of false cases could be registered if a woman wishes to punish a man. Valid concern. Here, there were two aspects that we told them:

  1. If, during the course of investigation, the Internal Complaints Committee finds that the charges were false, then the complainant (the woman who filed the complaint) will be punished. *

  2. Men need to understand that rarely do women complain without reason. And it is not rocket-science to figure out when you have made a woman uncomfortable, by word, gesture or action. Most often, men fully realize when their actions make women uncomfortable; they simply chose to ignore it. So if they could tune in a little more to women’s reactions and take a step back when she gets uncomfortable, a lot of trouble can be prevented.

* Note:

  • If the woman fails to provide necessary evidence to prove her case, then it is not considered as a false complaint and no charges will be filed against the woman.

  • If the man and woman concerned were in a relationship at the time of the incident and it is later reported by the woman as Sexual Harassment, then it may not be considered Sexual Harassment since it may have been consentual.

The impact

The session came to an end. During the course of the session, one woman had tears rolling down her cheek as we spoke about women’s rights and the support that is available for them if they need help. The other women, however, continued their silence. So we asked the men to say something to encourage the women to speak up. The men replied “No, we will not say anything henceforth…. because if they do not like it, it will amount to Sexual Harassment!” The women laughed.

Before we left, the women requested to have a separate interaction without the men and I was happy to oblige. Curious to know what had been running through their mind, I thought it was a good chance to ask them and maybe they would finally speak up in the absence of the men. My assumption was slightly wrong – even before I asked them, they started expressing, crying and sharing!

The first woman to share was the one who teared up during the session. She shared her story and spoke about how the session reminded her of the difficult times she had and how she came out of it. Another woman said how she had no idea about the legal provisions for women and the support system available, and that she feels there is no reason to fear anymore. Many of them said that they were afraid to speak in front of the men because they would be teased, but they greatly benefitted from the session and will work on being able to talk in the presence of men as well.

One of the questions, repeated by more than one woman was “How can we speak up when we risk losing our existing support system of family and friends?” This is a very valid concern that most women have and a big reason for their silence through all the suffering. When the perpetrator of the crime is a relative or even otherwise, there is usually little or no support available for them from their family. In some cases, there is a very real possibility that the woman loses all her support when she speaks out. And therefore, convincing women on this aspect is a bit challenging.

We told them that yes, it would not be easy and it will be a bit of a struggle emotionally, but they will receive help from support systems like Vanita Sahaya Vani and other NGOs which could help with immediate rescue, stay facility, employment and counselling, until they feel ready to stand on their own feet. And once they do, a new life and new support systems will find them. It will be this belief that makes even the most difficult struggle seem easy – there WILL be a brighter future ahead.

But it is they who have to take the first and the most difficult step. As we narrated stories of real women who went through such experienes and came out a winner, they seemed convinced that it is possible to come out of what seems like eternal suffering, and find a better life. Like one woman said “Sometimes, even we do not realize all that we are capable of. Only during hard times, do we really discover what we are made of.”

Before we could wrap up, one young woman asked “Is there something we women should do, such as dress a certain way, to prevent untoward incidents? Everybody is always telling us to dress, walk and talk properly….” There was no doubt in my mind when I firmly replied “Even if you walk naked on the street, nobody has the right to touch you”. Her eyes lit up and she said “You mean it is not our fault?” Before I could respond, the other women did. The woman who had cried earlier, firmly said “Now, I get it….If i don’t like something, I can simply say NO. If I don’t like a man sitting too close to me, I can simply say NO. I CAN say NO…”

Yes, you can say NO and not worry about what his intention was.

Yes, it is not your fault if a man looks, teases or touches you in a way that you do not like.

And nobody has the right to tell you what you can or cannot do.

It is your life girl; live it your way. 🙂

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