Employers under pressure to address surging #MeToo charges

Pressure is building on major Indian employers to take allegations of sexual harassment more seriously after a surge in the number of complaints against prominent public figures in the past week. Newspapers, some politicians and women’s groups have said that the requirements of the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act need to be enforced by companies and organisations, and if necessary by the authorities.

The #MeToo movement that gained traction in India last month after actress Tanushree Dutta accused actor Nana Patekar of sexual misconduct on the sets of a film in 2008, has now turned into a raging tsunami threatening to destroy the reputations and careers of men ranging from Union minister MJ Akbar to actor Alok Nath, singers Kailash Kher, Raghu Dixit, commentator Suhel Seth and many more over charges of sexual offences, ranging from sexual harassment to rape. Comic star Aditi Mittal is the lone women named in the movement by fellow comedy star Kaneez Surka.

While the Congress is asking journalist-politician Akbar to either resign as minister of state for external affairs or offer a satisfactory explanation to the allegations by women journalists who had worked with him in the past, the government maintained silence with Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad refusing to comment when asked to do so in a press conference.

With several journalists charged with workplace misconduct, the Editors Guild of India has extended “its total support to all women journalists, who suffered a disadvantage in their careers, physical or mental trauma, as a result of any sexual predation.” It has also called upon the media organisations to hold unbiased inquiries into all reported cases.

India is traditionally a conservative country where discussions about sex are still taboo for many, and where women have long lagged behind men in workplace participation. Hundreds of millions of Indians also work in the informal economy, or in small businesses where official channels of complaint are scarce, and the #MeToo movement will have little leverage.

The sexual harassment law stipulates any organisation with more than ten employees should have an independent committee to investigate allegations. But critics say that many organisations are not adhering to the letter of the law, or only paying lip service to it. “The committees required to address these complaints and grievances are either not properly constituted or simply do not exist,” said TK Rajalakshmi, president of the India Women’s Press Corps, that lobbies for the rights of women journalists. Too often these committees are dysfunctional or ineffective. The cost of complaining is too high. “The fact that many of the complaints have gone unheard despite being brought to the notice of the appropriate authorities is disturbing and a matter of grave concern.”

“Sexual harassment has been the elephant in the room,” said Kalpana Sharma, founder member of the Network of Women in Media (NWMI), which is setting up a helpline. “We experienced many things, but we called it occupational hazard and just got on with our work. We didn’t have the language for it.”

The NWMI is surveying media companies to check if they are following legal guidelines to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, Sharma said.