The October month meeting of NHRD Bangalore Chapter was on the hot topic of "Me too" titled in a catchy fashion as what we can do to change "Me too to not me". In line with the practice of NHRD of late, of having two speakers for the monthly meet (more if a panel discussion), Ms Kaadambari, Managing partner, UCOL a lawyer and Ms Mridula Chhetri, Founder CEO, InmovidoTechnologies Pvt Ltd, a social activist, shared their thoughts on the subject.
While having two speakers have been effective earlier with a strict control over time, it seemed to have not worked this time when a very sensitive, yet volatile subject was being discussed. The audience also had a lot to say and were not willing to wait till the end for the question- answer session to air their views.
The first speaker Ms Kaadambari started out with the observation "Me too movement is a double edged sword". While on the one hand, it brings out instances of sexual harassment, on the other it gives room for false accusations. She said that another flip side of the fall out is that men become scared of recruiting women, meaning employment opportunities would diminish for women. She opined that media trial shames a person and causes irreparable damage to the reputation of the accused even before a fair trial. She related instances of two cases handled by her firm,wherein the accusations made against male clients were proved to be false.
According to the speaker, the subject of sexual harassment need to be approached not in terms of gender but as an offence that tends to be committed by those in power on another on whom they have power or control. As presently more number of men are in powerful positions,it may appear as if men are harassing women. This position could change in future with more women occupying senior management positions. She said that there are also instances of harassment of men which are not reported as it is not held 'manly' for the victim to come out. There are many cases of young boys being sodomized, raped and sexually harassed in educational institutions and organizations that remain under wraps.
Ms Kaadambari said that documentation is a very important requirement given the fact that these days, there tend to be accusations, denials and counter accusations. Inconsistencies in the statement of the complainant, when asked to recount the incident multiple times will reveal whether or not a person is telling the truth. Details as to who were present, what were the things lying around etc. should not change with each narration. The speaker was in the process of going into details of relevant sections under IPC ( S16, S409)) and CRPC (S376) and IT Act (S66A), when she was stopped by the moderator for want of time. He requested the second speaker of the day Ms Mridula to share her thoughts.
Ms Mridula opined that the "Me too" movement is a very good thing that has happened which has given the courage to those affected to come out and that it will serve as a deterrent for sexual harassment instances in future. She spoke about the impact that sexual harassment incidents have on the corporates. Sexual harassment cases (1) affect work productivity. It could mean feelings of insecurity, disloyalty and disharmony. (2) There could be distortion of the public image of the company and the loss of reputation. It may become difficult for the company to" crawl out of the pit". (3) Such incidents could also have financial impact. Absenteeism and strained work relationships could be a fall out.
The speaker said that employers should take steps for educating employees on what constitutes sexual harassment under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work place Act 2013 and also take swift action for redressal of complaints. Proactive steps would go a long way in building a harmonious work environment.
At the end, there was hardly any time for taking questions from the audience as they had made frequent interjections earlier for airing their viewpoints on the subject. However, there was one point excitedly raised by a participant, that was answered by the lawyer Ms Kaadambari at the end. The question was whether a consensual relationship between a boss and subordinate can subsequently be raised as sexual harassment. The answer was in the affirmative. The very relationship of one person being the boss takes away the concept of 'consent' and the onus would be on the boss to show that there was no harassment.
To my mind, this discussion did not give either of the speakers sufficient time to articulate all that they wanted to say. As for example, the lawyer could not speak about the implications under the Indian penal code, Criminal procedure code, IT Act etc while the social activist could barely tell her part of the story. The audience was also similarly placed, like a hungry person half fed. The promo to the program had announced "Find out what role organizations can play;find out what you can do to ensure employees feel valued and cared for". This objective cannot be said to have been achieved.
Perhaps, for a topic of this nature, that has the capacity to arouse a lot of emotions and reaction, it would be better to have only one speaker with more opportunity for clarification and discussion.