As the #MeToo storm rages and occupies the centre-stage in Indian public discourse for more than two weeks now, there have been serious discussions and debates on whether or not there has been a systemic failure to curb sexual harassment at workplace in our professional settings. While the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act has been in place since 2013, and while the Vishaka guidelines have been around since 1997, the whirlwind of sexual harassment accusations levelled at powerful male editors, actors, writers, stand-up comics, among others — have made us take stock of the situation anew. As one of the accused, the Minister of State for External Affairs and former journalist M J Akbar, faces the heat of accusations from at least 10 women journalists and files a defamation suit against one — Priya Ramani, The Leaflet speaks to the Minister of Woman and Child Development, Ms Maneka Gandhi, who has been highly vocal in her support to the #MeToo movement.
The Leaflet: What are the steps that the Ministry of Women and Child Development has taken under your leadership in the last four and half years to address the issues of sexual harassment at workplace?
Maneka Gandhi:The Sexual Harassment Act came in 2013 only and the entire mechanism to operationalise the Act was done during my term. It has always been top of my agenda – ever since I learnt from a small survey an NGO did that 87% of all women are harassed during their first year at work. To begin with, we ensured that the internal complaints committees are in place in all Central Government Ministries, departments and their related organisations. Then we spread it to private employers as well. We prepared a Hand Book on the implementation of this Act and made it freely available to all. We held training programmes for the heads of ICCs for all Central Government Ministries and we empanelled a number of training organisations who were qualified to provide similar training to the stakeholders in the non-government sectors. Recently, we have launched comprehensive animated training videos on our website to be used by the women, the employers and the practitioners in this area.
Simultaneously, we have also provided multiple methods by which women can complain directly to us and then we take up their complaints with the concerned organisations on their behalf. A dedicated email, [email protected], ‘She-Box’ can be used by any woman to reach us. They can even tweet with #HelpMeWCD and we take up their complaints. Two years ago we started the hashtag #Iamtrolled for any woman who had been physically threatened on social media.
We also got the Companies Act 2013 amended to mandate the disclosure of compliance of the Sexual Harassment Act by all companies in their annual reports. This disclosure has to be signed off by the Directors of the Company and non-compliance entails serious punishments.
To change things long term , we asked for and got three major things :
A woman on every board of every company
33% of the police should be women.
A register available across the country of sexual offenders. Currently there are 4.5 lakh offenders on it.
Now, it is not just harassment at the workplace. I realized that one of the problems we had with women who had actually been penetrated forcibly /raped is that evidence either got lost or was contaminated by the police or the Forensic Lab took far too long. On investigation we realized that the total capacity of forensic labs in the country was for 1500 cases a year. So we have put money and time into developing 6 labs across the country and the capacity has gone up to over 20,000 annually and is increasing as the labs come up. We have also demanded , deigned and got rape kits which are being issued to each police station and hospital which are basically boxes with a list of guidelines on what to place inside and then are locked and sent to the labs.
For children we started the POCSO e-Box for complaints of molestation. We have increased the reach of Childline to almost double so that more children can complain and action is taken. We get 4 crore calls a year. We made a film called Komal which won the National Award and which is mandatory for every school to watch again and again on good touch and bad touch so that generations know what is molestation and what to do about it. We have also made it mandatory for all exercise books in school to carry the POCSO laws printed at the back so that children and their families know what to do. This has had a strong event in awareness generation.
The Leaflet: Why is it that despite the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act) 2013 in place, we continue to see sexual harassment happening with impunity? Why is there such a grave failure in the implementation of the law in our professional settings?
Maneka Gandhi: Is it not on the agenda for the first time in 70 years ? Is it now not talked about openly ? Is it now not forcing people to take action. Do you think that a #MeToo movement would have been possible if this were already not on the table ? That is what I have been trying to achieve in the last four years. The implementation of the Sexual Harassment Act started in 2014. So, this is still a new law. I do not agree with the statement that there is a grave failure in implementation of the law. The primary objective of such laws is to bring about change in behaviour and mind sets which obviously cannot be an overnight process. I think we have made sufficient progress in the last four years and created an environment where women can talk about the harassment they have faced from a position of strength rather than a position of weakness.
The Leaflet: You recently told a news channel that “Men who are in positions of power often do this (commit SH). And it applies to the media as well as to politics or senior personnel in companies. Can you explain what do you mean by that?
Maneka Gandhi: Men in power use their positions to sexually harass women. This is not specific to a society, a historical time period or a sector. It is not that every man in a position of power indulges in this. Some men do it. Any civilized society must provide safeguards to women in such situations. It is my job to provide these safeguards and it is your job to make sure that women know about them and use them to protect themselves.
The Leaflet: What is your opinion of the #Me Too movement sweeping various sections of India public life, particularly within the media and entertainment industries?
Maneka Gandhi: #MeToo is something whose time has come. On one hand we have women who are getting progressively empowered and, on the other hand, we have the tools of social media easily available. To the extent that the complaints by women are genuine, I think #MeToo is a welcome phenomenon. For many years woman have kept quiet because it is difficult to prove inappropriate touching, dirty gestures jokes and invitations. If they complained to their own people they would have had to leave their jobs and there are only so many jobs in the market. So they kept quiet. But their anger has been constant so many years later. The same men have become serial harassers and have gotten away with it . I think they should all be exposed — even if we can’t make a legal case for it. Many of them will now respond with their usual bullying tactics of legal notices and denials and expect the storm to blow over. But it should not. We should now carry on till society understands that no man can get away with it any more.
The Leaflet: Do you think that the tsunami of women “outing” their alleged sexual harassers for the past one week means that somewhere the women feel let down by the mechanisms to address sexual harassment at workplace, as well as the legal system and law enforcement agencies?
Maneka Gandhi: I do not think this is a correct interpretation. A woman who is sexually harassed has to live with massive psychological trauma which stays with her for life. The only manner in which there could be some relief is if she is able to vent out her pain. The mechanisms to address sexual harassment at workplace are a recent instrumentality provided by law. Therefore, I would rather say that it is the faith in the new system that women are coming forward with their complaints in large numbers.
The Leaflet: You have given a statement to that those accused of sexual harassment should be investigated, irrespective of who they happen to be. The Minister of State for External Affairs in your government, Mr M J Akbar, has been named by at least 10 senior women journalists for sexually harassing them at different times – when he was their editor-in-chief at different newspapers. What is your opinion on Mr Akbar?
Maneka Gandhi: I have given my answer above.
The Leaflet: Do you think there are more men like Mr Akbar in the various positions of power, including the current government, who must be called out for sexual harassment at workplace, or otherwise, and who must face full inquiry as permitted under the justice system?
Maneka Gandhi: Power or perceived power at any level makes some men believe they have the licence to misuse it. There should be zero tolerance by women of any of these men whether in politics, media, films or any position where they can hire and fire women and frighten them into putting up with this nonsense. However, I have been stating quite often for a long time and as the National Commission for women has also stated yesterday, a woman who is aggrieved by the conduct of a man, should formally complain so that the institutional mechanism gets triggered into action to ensure that her rights are protected.
The Leaflet: What is the way forward – socially, legally and politically – to address the mass outpouring of sexual harassment accounts from women on social media? Is there a parallel with the Nirbhaya moment when a great tsunami of public sentiment towards combating sexual violence compelled the government of the day to set up the Verma Commission? Should the law be overhauled to be more responsive to the current scenario?
Maneka Gandhi: Personally, I do not think that law needs to be overhauled. The mass outpouring of sexual harassment accounts from women will obviously make men more sensitive as well as cautious when they deal with women in their work places. #MeToo is an example of a successful self-correction leading to change of mind sets. Nevertheless, we would still be seeking help from experts to assess if there are any changes required anywhere so that women feel safer in the work places. I am going to set up a body of judges who will act as a Commission . They can hear the complaints and then give us their recommendations.