Monday, December 21, 2015

Maneka Gandhi is right

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 20, 2015

R.K. Pachauri continues to head TERI while his successor is yet to take over. Photo: Prashant Nakwe
The Hindu
R.K. Pachauri continues to head TERI while his successor is yet to take over. Photo: Prashant Nakwe

So while she is already on record asking that marital rape be criminalised even though her government thinks otherwise, in May this year she objected to the cutback in central funds allocated to programmes under her ministry. She was particularly upset that the allocation for the Integrated Child Development Services, a programme that has been crucial to improving nutritional levels of the most vulnerable children and women, has been cut by almost half. Furthermore, even the National Nutrition Mission launched in December 2014 by her government has been given short shrift. Far from the Rs.28,000 crores over five years that it was expecting, it has been allocated only Rs.100 crores so far.

In the recently released Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme, India’s maternal mortality figure of 190 (number of women who die for every 100,000 live births) is substantially higher than even war-torn Syria (49) and Iraq (67). Its child mortality figures are equally depressing as compared to many other countries.

Her latest missive to her own government is equally significant. In a letter to Union Finance and Corporate Affairs minister Arun Jaitley, Gandhi has asked him to make it mandatory for companies to reveal whether they have set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as required under the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act 2013. This is a reasonable request. Yet, Jaitley has dismissed it saying that such an additional demand on companies is “undesirable”.

How does the question of whether it is “desirable” or not enter the picture? The law has mandated that all companies and organisations must have an ICC. It also requires companies to inform employees about provisions of the law and train members of the ICC on the law and what constitutes an offence.

The non-compliance levels of Indian companies underline why Ms. Gandhi’s request is not unreasonable. According to a report titled “Fostering Safe Workplaces” by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Ernst and Young, one in every three Indian companies, or 31 per cent, has not set up ICCs. Of those who have, 40 per cent have not begun training the members in the provisions of the law, 35 per cent are unaware of the penal consequences of not complying with the law and 44 per cent have not circulated information about the law to their employees. FICCI has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UN Women to advance “gender equality and women’s empowerment”. A good start would be to get its members to comply with provisions of the sexual harassment law.

According to the National Commission on Women, the complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace have doubled from 249 in 2013 to 526 in 2014. These represent a sliver of the reality. For every one case reported, there are likely to be dozens that remain hidden, with the women too afraid to raise their voices for fear of losing their jobs or being further victimised.

We know from the recent sexual harassment case at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) how difficult it is for a woman to pursue a case against a powerful individual. When the TERI employee first complained against the head of the institute, Dr. R.K. Pachauri, TERI did not even have an ICC. Once constituted, the ICC upheld the woman’s complaint. Dr. Pachauri was asked to go on leave and the board (after some pressure from the media, one might add) appointed his successor. Yet, Dr. Pachauri continues to head TERI while his successor is yet to take over. Meanwhile, the affected woman has resigned. In her resignation letter, she states: “TERI failed to uphold my interests as an employee, let alone protecting them. The organisation has instead protected R.K. Pachauri and provided him full immunity, despite being held guilty of sexual harassment by your own inquiry committee.” This case is as clear an illustration as any of the skewed power equations in sexual harassment cases.

Compliance with the law is obviously only the first step. The minimum requirement is an ICC. Yet, as is clear from the TERI case, it is not enough. Organisations must support those women who find the courage to speak up. Instead, in their desire to avoid any slur on their reputations, many organisations end up protecting the harasser and literally hounding the complainant to leave. So, Maneka Gandhi is right. Insisting that registered companies (and other organisations) comply with this minimum requirement is not asking for too much.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Is violence the new normal?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 6, 2015

The report by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression that recently sent a team to investigate the impact of the conflict on women, speaks of the violence, rape and sexual assault that the local women live with every day. Photo: Lingaraj Panda
The Hindu
Has violence against women become so commonplace in India that we have stopped noting it? Do we need anniversaries — December 16 is coming up — to remind us of something that happens every day? Every year, the United Nations designates 16 days for activism against gender-based violence. So from November 25 to December 10, Human Rights Day, a slew of statements and events focuses on this. Useful as that is, we have to ask why we need specific days to express our concern for something that ought to be part of our daily discourse.

Gender violence does not occur occasionally. It happens everyday, everywhere. Yet, we only take note when something out of the ordinary happens, something horrific like the December 16, 2012, gang rape in Delhi. The sheer brutality of that rape and murder is seared into our collective memories. It galvanised people, who had never before been out on the streets, to shout that enough is enough and this culture of violence must end. 

That was three years ago. Today, that culture of violence remains embedded, throwing up new shoots every day. What is frightening is the ordinariness and the pervasiveness of sexual violence: the acceptance that it is there and will always be there; that women will get beaten up; that girls will be sexually assaulted. It is this ordinariness that makes us immune, almost indifferent to the daily litany of sexual assaults against women. 
Look at any newspaper. The stories leap out at youevery day, any day: “Nine-year-old sexually assaulted by her teachers”; “21-year-old jobless youth held for sexual assault of two-year-old.” What we read about is but a sliver of the whole. Because the whole of it takes place behind closed doors, in hidden places where there are no eyes to note, no cameras to record. It includes crimes that we don’t read about, because no one goes there to witness them, to listen to the victims, to understand that violence against women is the new normal in some parts of our country.

One such place is Chhattisgarh. With deadly regularity, there are reports of encounter deaths. What is not reported is what precedes or follows these encounters. Some of these stories have been reported in local newspapers but barely a word has appeared in the national media. As usual, a curtain of invisibility falls on incidents that occur in places that the media cannot access or does not try to access.

A few brave local journalists have tried to report on some of these stories that would otherwise be forgotten. And they have paid a heavy price for this. Two of them, Santosh Yadav and Somaru Nag, are still in jail in Chhattisgarh after being picked up in September and July respectively on suspicion of being sympathetic to the ‘Naxals’.

Apart from “encounter” killings, women in these troubled districts of Chhattisgarh have been targeted. Their stories remain largely unreported and uninvestigated. The report by Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression that recently sent a team to investigate the impact of the conflict on women, speaks of the violence, rape and sexual assault that the local women live with every day. Their report, about incidents during October 2015, is based on testimonies by dozens of women.

One such story was that of a 14-year-old girl from Peddagulur village in Bijapur district. According to the report, the girl “was grazing cattle with other women when she was chased by security forces. Overpowered and blind-folded, she was raped by at least three people before she became unconscious.” Another tragic story is that of a four-month pregnant woman who was stripped by the security forces, “repeatedly dunked in the stream, and then gang-raped.” Other women spoke of being chased, beaten, their houses looted and their property destroyed.

Despite this report, the higher ups in the police dismiss the complaints as propaganda. When you divide a population into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the latter are seen as ‘terrorists’, then anything can be denied. Crimes against humanity become propaganda. And by refusing to even acknowledge that these crimes have occurred, the state seeks to erase them from history.

In this case, there are two small factors that give some hope. One, that the women’s group and the local media were able to reach these villages and record the testimonies of the women. And two, that some of these women could travel to the district headquarters and depose before a district collector who was willing to listen and a police officer who was open to filing an FIR.

It is still a long haul from this stage to one where the men involved will be caught and punished. But given that practically no case of this kind has made it even to the FIR stage, it is worth noting. To come back to special days, and activism against gender violence, this is needed, every day, and against all forms of violence. Not just the sexual assaults in our cities, or those that the media choose to highlight.