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#MeToo in the age of coronavirus

Lounge spoke to four women facing sexual harassment at the workplace who admit to feeling safer working from home

The ‘Red’ series by illustrator Reya Ahmed is aimed at expressing a female narrative of melancholy, defiance, indifference and quiet appreciation of nature and solitude. instagram @artofreya
The ‘Red’ series by illustrator Reya Ahmed is aimed at expressing a female narrative of melancholy, defiance, indifference and quiet appreciation of nature and solitude. instagram @artofreya

Even before the lockdown started on 25 March, AJ’s colleagues at her PR firm had begun to work from home. She was one of the last to move her office to the corner room of her Mumbai apartment. “It came as a huge relief," she says. “I really could catch a break."

In January, she had approached the office internal complaints committee (ICC) and shown the lewd messages she had received from her boss. She gave a letter detailing the harassment and its psychological effects on her. In her plea, AJ was also clear she did not want this made public, nor was she pressing charges. She wanted the harassment to stop.

In February, however, matters took a turn for the worse. Everyone in her office knew about her complaint. “Some were sympathetic, others curious, and some were even suspicious of me," she says over the phone.

The committee was set to hear the case in March, when the lockdown was imposed. Today, Mumbai has the highest number of covid-19 cases and deaths. Restrictions in the metropolis will not be lifted in a hurry; AJ believes her office premises will not open until July. For her, it is welcome relief from the committee hearings, facing her boss and constantly thinking about the messages. “Most of his messages were on texts, which meant he could have continued through the lockdown, but since my complaint he has backed off," she says.

SS has not been as fortunate. She works in a small content management firm in Mumbai with around 40 colleagues. Her immediate boss had been making “uncomfortable innuendoes" since she joined two years ago. “He winked, said inappropriate things, sent love messages to my phone ever so often," she says.

Her company has an ICC but it does not have the mandated external member—someone from civil society who has worked on women’s issues. Since the members on the committee are all junior in designation to the person who has been harassing her, SS believes a formal complaint would not help.

“His messages have reduced considerably in number but not stopped," she says. She is not sure if this is because he is at home with family or because she is out of sight and therefore out of mind. “In any case, I am enjoying this lockdown despite the workload having increased," she says.

Sexual harassment is a spectrum, ranging from the verbal and gestural to physical. Lounge spoke to four women whose complaints ranged from uncomfortable staring to lewd text messages. All of them said staying at home made them feel safer and felt they were more productive.

However, in many instances, the harassment continues in some form. This is one of the many reasons for women opting out of the workforce. As most of them are still not expected to be the primary breadwinners, many prefer to stay at home rather than be in an unsafe work environment.

A failing economy too seems to have significantly reduced female participation in the workforce. According to the latest Economic Survey, 2019-2020, female workforce participation in India fell from 33.1% in 2011-12 to 25.3%. In urban areas, the number hovers around 19%. Sixty per cent of Indian women in the 15-59 age group are engaged in full-time household work, which means their work is not counted in economic terms at all.

With the economy shrinking and the job pie reducing, working women are bound to face the brunt. The lockdown will take a further toll, according to Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.

ST works in a Mumbai-based paint distribution company. Although she is happy that her boss is no longer able to stare at her, she worries about her job. Her colleagues had told her that her predecessor was asked to go on a weekend trip with the boss or leave the job. “It was not blatant but he was clear about what he wanted," says ST. The predecessor was asked to leave.

With smaller firms on shaky financial ground, ST fears this could provide the perfect opportunity for a predator to get his way. “Moreover, I desperately need this job," she says.

According to the International Labour Organization, sexual harassment of women on their way to work is also considered sexual harassment at the workplace. Inappropriate behaviour on any transport used to get to work, bus or taxi, would fall in this category.

In February, when AS was on her way to work in a south Delhi neighbourhood, she was assaulted by the cab driver. She lodged an FIR, complained to the cab company and reported the incident at work.

She has recurring nightmares about cab rides and is happy she does not have to commute to work. “Since that day, I have become so conscious about what I wear that I dress very conservatively even when I do Zoom calls for work," she says. “With all my privilege, I still feel so shaken. Think about all the women who have to board crowded DTC buses and reach work every single day! The lockdown is a boon for them if they can keep their jobs," she says.

AJ is senior enough to keep her job. But she knows that she will have to face the committee at some point. “It’s great to have a few months’ break," she says.

Raksha Kumar is a multimedia journalist focusing on human rights, politics and social injustices.

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