When I got a job at a major organisation, it was a significant opportunity for me to progress my career. I was excited to have landed a position in a well-known organisation that worked for a cause in which I believed. But, the sexual harassment I faced during my tenure wasn’t what I expected. The aftermath of my complaining about it was even worse.
Other female colleagues told me his behaviour was common knowledge in the organisation. These women would talk about my boss’s behaviour in hushed whispers. Sometimes, I would take consolation in the fact that his behaviour was a shade better with me than what it had been with other women juniors working at the institute. My colleagues seemed to take my boss’s indiscretions as par for the course, and their lackadaisical attitude made me question myself.
After months of ignoring my senior’s inappropriate behaviour, I lodged a formal complaint against him, and that’s when another set of battles appeared. It was a hard decision to complain. I was prompted to do once I understood that his behaviour could be complained about as it amounted to sexual harassment, which is punishable under the law.
However, after I filed my report with the police, hostility reared its head at every corner.
Getting a lawyer to represent me was not easy, and after finding a good counsel, getting them to argue my case — not the one they would like to present — was a whole other hurdle to cross. Another workplace harassment survivor I know told me once that she was left exhausted and disappointed after all the effort it took to get a criminal lawyer to fight her case. This uphill climb is familiar to me as well.
From other survivors of workplace sexual harassment, I’ve heard terrible accounts. A woman whom I met during my ordeal told me that several lawyers she approached would not respond over SMS or return phone calls. Eventually, she realised texting them that this is a matter involving 354 Indian Penal Code (outraging the modesty of a woman) makes them revert faster. Of course, that is only some of the time. Many times, even such a text message garnered no response. Hearing about this indifference on advocates’ part often left me feeling that the only way to access the legal framework was to either chase these people in courts, or sit outside their offices for hours just to get a few minutes of their time.
For me, and many victims of sexual harassment, the aftermath of complaining entails mental as well as physical fatigue. I battled depression and anxiety, both from the trauma of the harassment and the court battle that ensued. It left me exhausted, and from what I’ve learned since, I’m not alone. In the case of workplace harassment, the victim is almost always a junior colleague facing a powerful boss. After the complaint is filed, there’s the added burden of finding another job, not to mention the post-traumatic stress of the harassment itself. Lack of time, monetary resources, and sheer physical and mental energy limit to a woman’s ability to make rounds of government establishments or lawyer’s offices, police etc.
A friend who underwent a similar experience once told me that she approached her corporate lawyer friends, the response was “….police complaint se kya milega. Us xxxxxxx ko hi dekh lo, bail pe ghoom raha hai. Kya mila ladki ko. Main settle karva dunga. Paanch crore tak mil jayenge…” (Why bother? The girl won’t get anything, and the man will get bail.)
“I battled depression and anxiety, both from the trauma of the harassment and the court battle that ensued. These hurdles limit a woman’s ability to make rounds of government establishments or lawyer’s offices, police etc.”
It’s highly disappointing, but this is a common experience most victims of sexual harassment share.
Even at times when a lawyer shows pro-activeness and passion (pseudo), they take over the matter as though they dictate it all and do not let the complainant have a say.
“Without consultation with his client, her lawyer sent a letter to the accused party that she would be open to talks of settlement.”
Another victim of sexual harassment at a workplace whom I know was constrained to approach high-level authorities in a global publishing organisation headquartered in New Jersey. After that move failed, she felt compelled to get a local lawyer as well. She was vulnerable, and on medication for her depression. Without consultation with his client, her lawyer sent a letter to the accused party that she would be open to talks of settlement.
The women commission bodies may be overwhelmed, but it does not mean that they have scope for error when it comes to such matters. The Ministry of Women and Child Welfare did not come through for me at all. The agency is a respondent in my case but have not filed a single affidavit to support me. Another survivor whom I know who had it worse from them wherein instead of replying to her email of grievance they ended up responding to the email address of the entire organisation thereby revealing her identity and her ordeal.
There are other obstacles and hurdles. Alienation at work following a complaint of sexual harassment against a top boss, for example. Complainants are often treated as an untouchable in the organisation. Colleagues began to avoid me. I was also asked to seek employment elsewhere. Another victim has since told me the company she was serving for over a decade become a foreign place for her. In my experience, senior-level employees work against time and ethics to shield the sexual harasser.
Being sexually harassed by a person who’s responsible for your well-being and in a position of power over your livelihood is one of most difficult situations to handle. The aftermath of filing a complaint is like a tsunami — especially for a person who’s likely suffering from post-traumatic stress. Yet, I’ve learned to take the aftermath in my stride. It has made more determined to move on professionally, and continue my fight. The only other option is silence, and that’s not an option at all.