India’s ex-junior foreign minister MJ Akbar recently resigned following accusations of sexual harassment and assault by more than 20 women. Triggered by actress Tanushree Dutta, the #MeToo movement has swept the world’s largest democracy. It has taken India by a storm. Women in media, journalism, advertising, entertainment, the automobile sector and other workplaces are coming out with stories of sexual harassment and assault against powerful men in their fields.
From Bollywood directors and comedians to veteran journalists, no one is being spared. And while the accused men have apologised, resigned, counterattacked and even filed cases of defamation, speaking out has had its own consequences. The backlash that some women face on Twitter has been intense. People continue to blame the victims and raise the questions “Why now?” “Why is she coming out with her story 20 years later?”, “Where is the proof?”
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While this is not the first time women have come out and shared their stories, the solidarity this time around is immense. An ideal outcome of such a movement would be that perpetrators of sexual violence be legally held accountable for their actions. And that is only possible if the brave women coming out with their stories go beyond social media and actually file first information reports (FIRs) and takes legal recourse.
For this movement to lead to lasting changes in the country, women must move beyond social media testimonials and file reports. However, most women are afraid to take legal recourse due to several reasons, including lack of information, expenses, lack of justice and the whole process being intimidating. Nonetheless, activist Meghna Pant argues in her recent article that filing a case can be straightforward.
The #MeToo movement and policy change
I hope the movement compels the government and other organisations (private or public) to have a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment. If a minister, public person or an employee is accused of sexual harassment, they must be put on immediate leave and the allegations be thoroughly investigated by an internal complaint committee.
The government needs to get away from quick-fix solutions and invest in addressing the root causes of gender-based violence in India. For example, installing surveillance cameras for women’s safety has been criticised as not effective because of the lack of manpower to look through thousands of hours of footage when needed. The victim knows the perpetrator nine out of 10 times: installing surveillance cameras without proper machinery to follow up won’t create safer spaces.
At the same time, in 2013, India enacted new guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace. But according to the Human Rights Watch, the recent anti-harassment laws are lagging — the due process is broken. What is needed is technical support from India’s central and state government to ensure the effective implementation of these laws.
In 2013, the central government established the Nirbhaya Fund allocating Rs 3,000 crore ($46m) from 2013-2017. The main aim of this fund was to support schemes aimed at prevention, protection and rehabilitation of women. To date, most of the funds allocated remain unused. Where is the transparency and accountability?
Laws are just one part of the problem. A much-needed social change is also required
However, laws and the efficient implementation of the laws are just one part of the problem. A much-needed social change is also required. To begin with, people need to change their mindsets and stop treating women and girls as second-class citizens. The fact that an incident of sexual harassment happened 10-20 years ago does not make it any less valid today. We need to teach children early on about consent culture. “Bollywood set wrong expectations for men. Songs, dialogues have propagated progressive mindsets for decades. Parents need to talk to their sons,” says writer and filmmaker Harini Calamur.
At work, ensure your organisation has a formal mechanism to file complaints against sexual harassment and seek justice. You must hold your place of work accountable if they fail to provide a safe environment to work, study and perform. Speak up and hold people in power accountable. We have voted for these people and we must demand more from them.
We need more men in the conversation actively advocating against sexual harassment
Finally we need more men in the conversation actively advocating against sexual harassment. Till two weeks ago, the barrier to coming out with your story was extremely high. While there are still personal and professional consequences to doing so, what’s different this time is that there is solidarity and support.
We have come a long way in breaking our silence on sexual harassment and naming our harassers. Women’s anger has reached a crescendo, and it is no longer just one story. It’s a collection of stories, and while we are all taking ownership of it and in it together, let’s hope this movement brings about the much social and policy change that our country needs when it comes to gender-based violence. — Shruti Kapoor
(Picture credit: Flickr/Christian Senger)