The #MeToo movement continues to make headlines in India with women going public with their accounts of men who allegedly abused their power and preyed on them, particularly in the workplace. The long list of men who have been named and shamed include prominent personalities from the worlds of journalism, films, entertainment, literature, advertising, business and politics.
Although the movement’s overall impact will only be known in some time, many believe it could encourage more women to officially register complaints when there are incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace.
A look at existing data suggests that there has been an increase in the number of sexual misconduct cases registered in the workplace. But many are still unhappy about how these incidents are dealt with, and say that the conversation about harassment may need to go beyond offices.
Increase in cases registered in the workplace
According to data published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the number of cases of sexual harassment in the workplace registered in India jumped 54% from 371 cases in 2014 to 570 in 2017. According to the ministry, 533 cases have already been reported in the first seven months of 2018 – nearly as many as for all of last year.
Given this increase in the number of cases reported over the last few years, and the magnitude of the ongoing movement, the government is considering intervening in the matter. The ministry has proposed setting up a committee to look into cases that have came out since #MeToo opened the floodgates on October 5.
“I believe in all of them,” Maneka Gandhi, the Union minister for women and child development, declared on Friday. “I believe in the pain and trauma behind every single complainant.”
Activists, however, are unsure whether the ministry’s proposed action will lead to much.
Workplaces taking note
Activists at the forefront of #MeToo are hopeful that the movement will spur companies to better enforce laws that govern the handling of cases of sexual harassment and misconduct, and conduct intensive training sessions and awareness programmes to achieve this.
“When you do an aggressive training regarding sexual harassment, you see an increase in number of cases,” Sonal Mattoo, an independent advocate who works with companies on sexual harassment cases, was quoted as saying by The Economic Times in September, before the MeToo movement took off.
But data from NIFTY’s annual report of 44 companies shows only a small increase in the number of complaints filed over the past year – from 614 in 2017 to 620 for this year so far.
Mattoo added that with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, having been in existence for five years now, companies should have seen “a healthy spurt” in the number of cases reported.
Vishal Keda, founder of ComplyKaro, which offers legal consultation services on sexual harassment, told The Economic Times, “Companies in India go through this moral dilemma of whether to appreciate if there are no sexual harassment complaints or whether it is to be considered a sign of not enough women feeling empowered to complain.”
Do Internal Complaints Committees do their job?
When women do report incidents of harassment or misconduct to their employers, the complaint is reviewed by an Internal Complaints Committee before any action is initiated. The Internal Complaints Committee is an internal department constituted by companies under the 2013 Act to address sexual misconduct in their work space. It is basically the primary mechanism empowered by the civil court to resolve complaints of sexual harassment. But even if companies have such committees in place, the question that is often asked is: Do they do their job well? Do they inspire confidence in women employees about handling cases?
The Indian National Bar Association, a non-profit organisation, put this question to 6,047 survey participants in various cities – including Gurgaon, Delhi, Kolkata and Noida – between April 2016 and October 2016. Around 67% of the respondents replied “no” when asked if Internal Complaints Committees dealt fairly with complaints.
Sexual harassment outside ‘offices’
The #MeToo movement may encourage companies to adopt stringent mechanisms to ensure a safe work environment for women, but what about semi-formal or unorganised workplaces? A report by the Martha Farrell Foundation, a non-profit that works for women’s rights, compiled responses from 291 women employed as domestic workers in Delhi and the National Capital Region between June 4 and June 10 and found that a third of the respondents had faced sexual harassment. Although the sample size was relatively small, the result suggests an important aspect of “workplace” harassment may be going ignored.
According to a 2012 poll by Oxfam, a non-profit that works for poverty eradication, women in such informal workplaces are more vulnerable to workplace harassment than those in offices. The data said 29% of labourers, 23% of domestic workers and 16% of small-scale manufacturing workers were vulnerable to sexual misconduct and harassment when compared to formal sector workers.
Additionally, a 2015 report by the Garment Labour Union and the non-governmental organisation Munnade said 14% of women garment workers in Bengaluru had been raped or forced to commit a sexual act. It pointed out that 75% of the garment workers reported that there was no complaints mechanism for employees, while 65% said they did not believe they could get justice because they were too poor.
Beyond workplaces: #MeToo within families?
The bulk of the #MeToo stories have focused on workplace harassment, although some have also brought up cases of abusive relationships. What has gone mostly unheard is sexual harassment and abuse that takes place within families.
According to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, around 10% of Indian girls between the ages of 10 and 14 face sexual violence in their families. Another report, compiled by the National Family Health Survey in 2015-2016 and released this year, shows that 99.1% of sexual violence cases are not reported and in most cases, the perpetrator is the husband, reported LiveMint. The report also points out that reporting of violence against women is higher among states with high female literacy rates, suggesting that less educated women often do not feel empowered to register complaints.