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When the lady is lewd
As allegations against Phaneesh Murthy revive discussions on sexual harassment in the workspace, activists for men's rights question why the new law protects only women.
Three months ago Rajesh Pillai, an executive with a multinational firm, accepted a Facebook friend request from a female colleague at work. "Jovial and friendly, " is how Pillai describes her, revealing they exchanged inconsequential messages for some time. But gradually, Pillai claims his colleague's communication became bawdy and suggestive. When she propositioned him, Pillai, a married man, says he ended their Facebook friendship, but alleges that she continued pursuing him via texts and phone calls. "When I didn't respond, she threatened to implicate me in a false rape case, " says Pillai, a 32-year-old resident of Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.
Armed with the evidence of SMSes, emails and Facebook messages, Pillai went to meet Harinarayan Chari Mishra, superintendent of police, Jabalpur. When Pillai complained to the duty clerk, he was unprepared for the response. "The officials laughed at me, " he says, angrily.
At a time when allegations of sexual harassment by a female co-worker against iGate CEO and former Infosys director Phaneesh Murthy have made international headlines, it is shocking to learn that had the situation been reversed, and had Murthy been in India, there is very little he could have done to make a legal case for himself.
For starters, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Law, which came into effect in April 2013, does not cover harassment of men. This point was debated while the law, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD), was in bill form. Despite the parliamentary standing committee in December 2011 asking that the "viability" of protecting men from sexual harassment at the workplace be "explored", no amendments were made to the bill. The committee's suggestions were based on the fact that sexual harassment laws are gender neutral in countries like the UK, France and Germany.
Regarding Pillai's case, Mishra says it is clearcut sexual harassment. But the only options available to the police to proceed with the complaint are to book the offender - Pillai's colleague - under Sections 507 (telephonic threat) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 66-67 of the IT Act (writing of an abusive or objectionable nature). Mishra claims Pillai is not the first man to attempt filing a harassment complaint against a woman in his police station, and official sources admit there has been a rise in the number of complaints from men who have been threatened or blackmailed after consensual relationships sour. "Last month, a 20-year-old boy came to us seeking protection from a 42-year-old woman. He alleged she was trying to force him into a relationship, " says Mishra, adding that the two have since resolved their differences. However, Pillai, whose case has been rejected by several lawyers, is unwilling to step down, despite the pressure he is under at work.
Allegations of this kind can destroy a man's career and personal life, says Sandesh Chopdekar, vice-president of Pune-based NGO Men's Rights Association, explaining why men don't usually come forward. "Ninety-nine per cent of male victims don't disclose such incidents and even those who call us for help or come for counseling are reluctant to open up, " says Chopdekar, who claims a majority of complaints to their helpline are from the corporate world, men too scared or ashamed to blow the whistle on indecent proposals. "They need a lot of coaxing to tell their story. And since there are no specific laws all we can do is provide them emotional support, as well as some tips on how to get by at work, " he says, sharing that men are counseled to preserve every written piece of communication from their harassers, and to stay strong when mocked by co-workers.
Chopdekar admits that cases where women are the harassers rarely end with vindication for the men they harass. "Our experience has been that once their situation becomes public, these men are either fired at the mere whiff of a scandal or quit voluntarily to avoid embarrassment, " he says, revealing that the new Sexual Harassment Act has further complicated attempts to resolve such situations for men. "Our hopes were raised when WCD minister Krishna Tirath said the ministry was planning to conduct a study into the issue and root for a gender neutral law. But at the end, it has resulted in a lopsided piece of legislation. "
The new Act defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexually determined behavior", which could be physical contact, request for sexual favours, sexually-coloured remarks, etc.
Activists for men's rights, while questioning the exclusion of men from this law, ask - can't men be harassed by women on these grounds? "Are men predators and women only prey?" Rukma Chary of the Save Indian Family Foundation (SIFF), Bangalore chapter, asks. SIFF, an NGO fighting for men's rights, gender equality and family harmony by creating awareness about the misuse of anti-male laws, is questioning why the strength of the Criminal Law amendment ordinance, which addressed harassment of both men and women, was diminished by the Lok Sabha which passed the new act. Shalini Mathur, director, Suraksha, a women's rights NGO in Lucknow differes. She says, "The policymakers realised that 99. 5 per cent victims of sexual harassment are women. Men have both power and influence to take care of themselves. In any case, the harassment law prescribes punishment for false complaints filed with for mala fide intentions. "
Quoting from a 2010-11 survey by Economic Times conducted across seven cities, Chary says, "Of the 527 people interviewed, 19 per cent admitted to some kind of sexual harassment. Half of them claimed their harassers were women". Chary believes that faced with these numbers, a review of the system is inevitable. Recently, representatives of the Azim Premji Foundation visited their centre to discuss the scale of the problem and the possibility of holding a sensitisation workshop in their company. Enthused by their interest, SIFF is working on a strategy to reach out to other corporate houses. "The problem cannot be wished away, and fortunately India Inc is now accepting it exists, " Chary concludes. "We are certain that discussions will be followed up with action."
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