A young Indian Administrative Service officer’s recent experience with fighting sexual harassment is a reminder that for women, justice can often be elusive even in a courtroom.

In a detailed Facebook post put up on Saturday, trainee IAS officer Riju Bafna described how a judicial magistrate in Madhya Pradesh refused to honour her requests for privacy while she gave her statement about being sexually harassed by another government employee.

In the last week of July, Bafna claims she received several “indecent messages” from a man posted as Ayog Mitra (commission cell worker) of Madhya Pradesh’s Human Rights Commission. She filed a police complaint in response.

“He was immediately removed from his job, thanks to the swift action by my Collector, Shri Bharat Yadav,” said Bafna in her Facebook post, which has garnered a lot of media attention.

But after receiving support from the Collector, Bafna had to face hostility from an advocate as well as the magistrate when her case was taken up in the district court. Feeling uncomfortable giving her statement in the presence of many people, she requested the judicial magistrate to ask others to leave. At this, an advocate shouted at her, saying "how dare you suggest me to leave, I am an advocate here and you might be an officer in your office but not in the Court".

Bafna told the advocate that the right to privacy while giving a sexual harassment statement is granted to all women by the law, but the advocate left only after an argument. She then told the magistrate that he should be careful about the presence of others in the courtroom in such cases, to which the magistrate reportedly said, “you are young and that’s why [you are] demanding such things”.

“Such is the state of affairs for women in this country...Idiots are lined up at every step and people are highly insensitive towards our sufferings. If you are born in this country, better prepare yourself for struggle at every step,” Bafna wrote.

Not the only one

Bafna’s experience is, unfortunately, neither shocking nor unheard of in the recent history of sexual harassment and assault cases in India.

Suzette Jordan, who was gang-raped in Kolkata’s Park Street in 2012, had to face traumatic humiliations at the hands of lawyers and judges all through the trial of her case in court. After Jordan’s death in March, her friend and activist Harish Iyer described some of her ordeals.
“One incident that affected her very badly was when her undergarments that she was wearing when she was raped were openly exhibited. The defence lawyer held it with a stick and asked her if it was hers, and whether she wearing it on that day when she was "allegedly" raped.  She told me that she broke down in court and pleaded to the judge, asking her to intervene. The judge, one of her own gender, did not.”

In Mumbai’s infamous Shakti Mills gang-rape case of 2013, too, the rape survivor had to face insensitive questions by the public prosecutor. In an article in the Economic and Political Weekly in July 2014, feminist lawyer Flavia Agnes mentioned that the survivor was asked when she last had her period, and she was also asked to identify the pornographic video clips she was shown while being raped.

The insensitive atmosphere of courtrooms does not appear surprising when one considers the number of women who actually reach positions of seniority as lawyers or judges. The Supreme Court, for instance, has appointed just 12 women as senior advocates from 1966 to 2015, when more than 300 men have been appointed to the same position in the same time period.