The suicide of a 28-year-old female Range Forest Officer posted at the Melghat Tiger Reserve in Amravati has yet again brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to the fore. Dipali Chavan-Mohite, popularly known as ‘Lady Singham’ for her daring and stringent action against forest mafias, shot herself at her official quarters near the reserve with her service revolver and passed away on Thursday, reported IANS.
Officials said that she had left a purported suicide note in which she detailed the sexual harassment and torture she faced at the hands of an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer. Amravati police has detained the Deputy Conservator of Forest, Vinod Shivkumar as the four-page suicide note revealed that he allegedly abused his position, indulged in verbal harassment, and made sexual advances against the deceased.
Chavan-Mohite’s requests to her superiors to tackle the harassment were ignored. In fact, she was rather subjected to more gruelling assignments and torment by Shivkumar. In a profession where she chased people involved in dangerous illegal activity, here it was a man abusing the power differential that eventually made the young officer feel unsafe at her workplace.
A pervasive and systemic concern
Unfortunately, similar stories of men abusing their power and troubling female workers continue to plague India across industries. According to data from the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the number of registered cases of sexual harassment at Indian workplaces increased by 54% from 371 in 2014 to 570 in 2017. In 2018, India witnessed its own wave of #MeToo movement where women from all walks of life came out with their stories of the emotional and sexual harassment perpetrated against them not just in their personal lives but also in the professional arena.
Perhaps the most prominent case in the recent past is that of Priya Ramani and several other female journalists who accused former Union minister MJ Akbar of sexual harassment. Represented by a team of 97 lawyers, Akbar filed a criminal defamation case against Ramani who was later acquitted by a Delhi court, a landmark verdict worth celebrating and widely hailed as socially progressive. Yet, the win is still seen as an outlier as women in fields ranging from advertising to domestic work have said that despite filing complaints against perpetrators and the introduction of Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) guidelines at the workplace, little has changed.
Has #MeToo changed the workplace?
Bombay high court lawyer and POSH expert Rutuja Shinde shared that the impact of the #MeToo movement has been limited to urban settings. She said that it mostly extends to women who have access to social media and work in private sectors where corporates are able to invest in creating awareness or are forced to take sexual harassment seriously to protect their reputation. “In Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, public sector, public employment — I don’t see proactive measures being taken,” she said.
According to the POSH Act, any organisation — private or government — employing more than 10 people is required to form an Internal Complaints Committee to redress complaints on sexual harassment. Despite legal provisions, Shinde pointed out that it is a difficult task for women to complain against perpetrators. “[Especially in Chavan Mohite’s case], the accused was in a position of power,” said Shinde, indicating that the deceased officer may have felt the power dynamic and experienced the added stigma of being a prominent public servant.
Chavan-Mohite may herself have been in a position of power but it is a myth that women at the helm do not face sexual harassment. Earlier this month, a female IPS officer who is a Superintendent of Police accused a fellow IPS officer in the rank of Director General of Police (DGP) in Tamil Nadu of behaving inappropriately towards her. Before she filed the complaint, other officials had tried to intervene and attempted to prevent her from proceeding with the matter.
“The nature of sexual crimes is so different; it preys on your dignity and mental health; there are layers to it,” remarked Shinde. Studies have shown that women who reported harassment experienced increased odds of depression and were also noted to be associated with sleep disturbance and fatigue. Those facing sexual harassment may also experience post-traumatic stress disorder as well as anxiety. The mental health outcome could also lead to an increased risk of suicide, which is why organisations need to start taking complaints more seriously and take urgent actions against offenders.
From government organisations to private companies, the most common reaction to a woman speaking up against her perpetrator is to either dissuade them, dismiss their testimonies as untrue or defamatory, diminish the magnitude of the problem or fail to thoroughly carry out an investigation. Until the attitude of the ‘system’ towards sexual violence changes, there is still a considerable distance to go in safeguarding the female workforce, but the first step can be as simple as believing women.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)