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Silence is not an option
May 25, 2013 COMMENT comment
     
Silence is not an option
Naina Kapur
 
Beyond law, being equipped with knowledge of our rights and action points can assist women in facilitating healthy innovative change at the workplace. Our society is accustomed to think of sexual harassment as just "a way of life" – a belief rooted in our disproportionate focus on women and their responses to sexual violations.
 
In the last three months, India has seen a wave of intolerance for behaviour that is sexually offensive. Though we've had in place a binding law for over 16 years which prohibits sexual harassment at work (the Vishaka Directions), genuine efforts to make it functional and large have been absent. Now however, recently passed legislation to prevent, prohibit and redress sexual harassment make it essential for all workplaces and institutes to comply. But what can you do to bring a change?
 
Suppose two men make sexual jokes at your workplace or occasionally look at sexually explicit images on the Internet. Or suppose a supervisor in your office invites you out for dinner on the pretext of offering you a job promotion or other workplace benefit. Speak up. Let them know their actions make you uncomfortable. If you're unable to do this, tell someone; a co-worker, senior colleague or HR head. Silence is no longer an option.
 
Most people and organisations silently discourage intervention. It's a fear-based approach to change. "Don't get involved" is the belief we fuel. Do we then take responsibility for creating the opportunities for such unacceptable behaviour to flourish? Intervention is a significant preventive tool; in fact, a bystander intervention can interrupt incidents of sexual harassment or situations that lead to harassment.
 
Our society is accustomed to think of sexual harassment as just "a way of life" – a belief rooted in our disproportionate focus on women and their responses to sexual violations. Such notions are at odds with India's recognition of sexual harassment as a human rights violation under international law. Reclaiming our sexual space at work is, therefore, not a radical idea. It simply conforms with our right to dignity and equality.
 
Prevention is the key to eliminating systemic sexual harassment. Encourage your workplace to put the following primary prevention practices in place:
 
A comprehensive policy on Workplace Sexual Harassment that is effectively communicated.
Employee orientations and workshops to raise awareness.
A trained committee on sexual harassment to deal with complaints. Compositions of such committees must include 50 per cent women, a woman chair and a third party expert.
 
If you work in an organisation of 10 or more persons, you have a legal right to insist that your workplace has all of the above in place. Non-compliance will subject your workplace to fines and even possible termination of business licences.
 
Whether it's speaking up, intervening, or initiating preventive steps, what work culture do we seek to promote? What messages are we prepared to teach our children, or impress upon our families, friends, fathers, mothers and partners? Is it one of courage or shame? What can you do? Isn't the honest challenge, what will you do?

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