A Saheli Critique of the Complaints Committee

Report and Action Taken by Chintan, Delhi

Newsletter Sep - Dec 2005

Sexual Harassment is a serious violation of women’s rights, and must be tackled not only with seriousness, but with sensitivity. However, the tackling of a recent case of sexual harassment in Chintan, a Delhi-based environmental NGO, demonstrates how misplaced morality can interfere with administering justice.

A woman employee of Chintan was sexually harassed by a male co-worker in February 2005. Deeply affected by the incidents, and not satisfied by the response of her employers, she approached Saheli for assistance and advice. A Complaints Committee (CC) to enquire into the complaint was set up by the Director of Chintan two months after the incident. The composition of the CC underwent several changes, and the hearings took five months to complete. The CC came out with its report in end-September 2005. The entire process and the final report raise several serious issues which must be addressed.

Though the CC recommended the suspension of the perpetrator for a period of 3 months, it failed to give full justice to the complainant. The report, in fact, contains certain extremely objectionable and anti-woman statements and conclusions which are damaging to this complainant in particular and any complainant of sexual harassment in general. The report contained merely one small paragraph of the complainant’s version cursorily outlining her complaint, and one and a half pages of the version of the accused, addressing every detail. This skewed emphasis demonstrates the preconceived notions of the CC. The CC observes that ‘...sexual harassment almost always takes place privately and there are normally no witnesses to any of these incidents’. With this understanding, it is imperative that the complainant’s version be given utmost consideration, since establishing the veracity of the complaint rests on the complainant’s testimony.

Yet, in a complete departure from giving the complainant a fair hearing, the CC treated the complainant as the accused and took on full faith the ‘admission’ of the real accused that he and the complainant were ‘attracted to each other’, but did not give credence to the complainant’s version that there was nothing consensual or mutual about the ‘attraction’, which she perceived as sexual harassment.

The observation by the CC that ‘...sexual interaction or behaviour even if consensual is highly unethical and unprofessional and would not be tolerated’ betrays the CC’s lack of understanding about sexual harassment. By penalising even consensual sexual behaviour, the CC advocates moral policing, rather than a redressal of non-consensual sexual advances, i.e., sexual harassment. The management of Chintan, taking its cue from this last point, distorted it further by implying that sexual harassment did not take place, but that the accused was being suspended because of ‘sexual attraction’. A more mature way of dealing with the issue would have been to discuss how to deal with sexuality in the workplace and to evolve mutually agreed codes of conduct rather than prohibitions and bans, which only serve to blur the crucial difference between consent and lack of consent, which define sexual harassment.

Despite being a committee with the limited mandate of enquiring into a complaint of sexual harassment, the CC made several judgemental statements about the ‘behaviour’ of the complainant and recorded irrelevant statements of office staff about her. The CC is not the appropriate body to assess a complainant’s professional work in office. These have no bearing on a case of sexual harassment, and in this case, the CC overstepped its mandate to make these extraneous and highly subjective judgements.

The CC further overstepped its mandate to rationalise and explain Chintan’s bona fides and justify the delay in setting up a CC. An NGO’s funding status has no bearing on its obligation to set up a redressal mechanism for dealing with sexual harassment. Such a mechanism should have been set up in Chintan as far back as 1997, following the Vishakha judgement of the Supreme Court.

In fact, the funding status of the NGO, the lack of fair labour practices and appropriate grievance redressal mechanisms have a direct impact on the witnesses due to the lack of job security. The witnesses, colleagues and staff find it difficult to express their displeasure against the management and support any of their colleagues in distress, as the complainant was. It is hardly surprising that the staff at Chintan toed the line, and was unwilling to support anybody perceived to be against the management. Time and again one has seen how women fighting for their rights are isolated and labelled as ‘trouble makers’.

In fact, in Saheli’s earliest interactions with the Director of Chintan, she had assured us that she would try to make the workplace less hostile for the complainant, and that she would also organise a workshop on the issue of sexual harassment for all Chintan employees to sensitise them towards this issue, but nothing has been done so far. All efforts at engaging with the organisation at various levels have yielded no results or sensitivity. The complainant was subjected to, and continues to suffer, various other forms of harassment at a workplace that has got increasingly hostile.

Another serious breach of procedure occurred when the Director, in her formal note to the CC, in which she sought to raise issues of concern, in fact, made several judgements on the complainant’s character, associations and other such inferences that could serve no other purpose besides undermining the complainant and her case. As an employer, she failed at that critical moment to stand by a victim of sexual harassment and accord the complaint its due seriousness. The undue influence of the Chintan management on the perspective and functioning of the CC raise further doubts about the independence of the CC. The Director has now issued a charge-sheet against the complainant regarding her work performance, the timing of which, following as it does, hot on the heels of the CC report, casts a further shadow on the Director’s declared concern for the complainant who has been under immense pressure for the last many months.

Saheli, in a letter to the members of the board of Chintan has demanded that they critically examine the process of instituting the CC, including the letter sent by the Director; the hostile environment at the workplace as a direct consequence of the complaint of SH; non payment/arbitrary deductions of salary to the complainant for the last four months, and ensure that her dues are paid to her without any further delay. Saheli also demanded that the latest charge-sheet against the complainant be immediately withdrawn.

In addition if, as the CC recommended, the management of Chintan institutes a permanent committee against sexual harassment, it is crucial to address the implications of the anti-woman biases and narrow perspective of the current report on sexual harassment and the precedent it is setting within the organisation. By setting up relevant, gender-sensitive redressal mechanisms, the NGO sector must demonstrate its willingness to tackle these issues head on, particularly when—as Chintan does—it claims to address issues of ‘social equity’. The NGO sector must also be transparent and accountable to the larger women’s movement and democratic rights movement.

The handling of cases of sexual harassment requires both sensitivity towards the victim and understanding and experience of the issues involved. The current report has far-reaching negative implications for women already victimised by sexual harassment, failing to do what is most essential: to strengthen the courageous voices which speak out against sexual harassment.