A woman cooks food by fire inside a home in Kraska village, Rajasthan on April 16, 2018. (Photographer: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg)

Fighting Harassment, Before #MeToo


With so much ongoing discussion on the #MeToo campaign, and with so many skeletons coming out of the proverbial cupboards, it is perhaps a good time to look back and reflect on this campaign’s history.

It is not as if the question of workplace harassment of women is a new one. Indeed, the birth of the Self Employed Women’s Association or SEWA, is closely tied in with women tailors, cart pullers, head loaders, migrant workers and others working in the informal economy, bringing their issues to the attention of Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA. It was out of that initiative that SEWA, a trade union of informal women workers was born. Among the many problems women in the informal economy faced, was that of being sexually assaulted and harassed in their workplaces.

Over the years, these nameless women have been joined by many others, collectively and individually, who have chosen their own ways of naming, fighting and addressing this all-pervasive problem.

In many – most – instances, they’ve remained silent, sometimes out of choice, sometimes out of compulsion. But in others, they have spoken out, often at considerable cost.

Two women whose names stand out in the more recent past, for having spoken out, and whose cases became public, are Bhanwari Devi and Rupan Deol Bajaj. In both instances, power and hierarchy played a major role.

The Cases That Changed Attitudes

In 1988, Rupan Deol Bajaj— at the time a high-ranking IAS officer—filed a case of sexual assault against KPS Gill, then Director General of Police and seen as something of a national hero for having ‘solved’ the problem of militancy in Punjab. At a party at the house of a high ranking official, KPS Gill patted Rupan Deol Bajaj on her bottom.

She filed a case against him which took many years to come to a final conclusion, during which time she faced attack and the usual opprobrium, but she stood firm. Finally, in 2005 Gill was convicted, awarded a brief imprisonment, some probation and made to pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh.

Four years later, in 1992, workplace sexual harassment came up again. Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman worker with the Women’s Development Programme in Rajasthan, was gang-raped by upper caste Gujjar men from her village.

The Women’s Development Programme was worked as a unique collaboration between the central government, the state government of Rajasthan, international NGOs and women’s groups.

The programme conceptualised involving women in village level groups where they would come together to discuss their problems and explore ways of addressing them. Meetings, workshops, training, discussions, were part of the plan. In addition, village women were ‘employed’ (paid a small stipend) to fan out into their communities and talk to them about government schemes and laws, creating familiarity and hopefully, compliance. The assumption was that it is easier to talk about these issues within your community rather than have someone from outside come in and impose their views. And this could be done in your own time.

In Rajasthan, child marriage was – and remains – a major issue.

One of the tasks of the programme’s village level workers, called sathins, was to address this issue and it was while trying to persuade a Gujjar family in her village of Bhateri, where Bhanwari and her husband worked as kumhars (potter) – to not marry their children, that Bhanwari faced opposition. Affronted that a Dalit woman could dare to question their practices, four Gujjar men got together to ‘teach Bhanwari a lesson’ and gang-raped her in the fields, while holding her husband captive.

With the help of other activists in the programme, Bhanwari reported the rape and eventually fought a case against her rapists. Alongside, women’s groups in Rajasthan led a largescale national movement of women in support of Bhanwari and demanding punishment for her rapists. Within this campaign, a number of discussions began on the important question of women’s safety in the workplace.

How, women’s groups asked, was the workplace to be defined? Was it only within the four walls of an office?
Women fish in a waterlogged field on what was the proposed site of a Posco steel plant in Dhinkia, Odisha. (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

When Bhanwari was working in her village and going from house to house to talk to people, was that not her workplace? Was the field not her workplace? If yes, whose responsibility was it to ensure her safety in that workplace? To make the workplace secure?

It was out of these discussions that the Vishakha petition, filed by four groups on behalf of the women’s movement, came into being.

Filed in the Supreme Court, in which the Government of India and the Government of Rajasthan were made respondents, the Vishakha petition demanded that certain safeguards be put in place to ensure safety for women in the workplace.

Laying Down The Rules

The process of filing the Vishakha petition is often forgotten: although four groups put their name to the petition, and although a conscious decision was taken to have the lead group be from Rajasthan, these groups were basically representatives of a much wider movement, where every issue that went into the petition was discussed, shared, thought through and then made part of the petition. This kind of collective thinking and action was, and remains, a hallmark of the women’s movement in India.

At the time, there was no law in existence in India that specifically addressed sexual harassment at the workplace.

Seized of the importance and gravity of the issue, the Supreme Court drew from the Indian Constitution, specifically Articles 14, 19 and 21, and from international treaties and laws. In 1993, India had ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and an important clause in the Convention was equality in employment. The Supreme Court issued a set of guidelines which came to be known as the Vishakha guidelines. The guidelines would be in place until such time as the government could create a law, and this finally happened in 2013.

At this moment, when so much is happening which is helping to broaden and deepen the discussion on sexual harassment at the workplace, it is worth remembering that the history we have inherited was substantially due to the courage of a poor Dalit woman.

The Battle Is Far From Over

As many people have pointed out, having a law in place is only the beginning. It is no solution. In the last nearly five years since the Act has been in place, many instances of sexual harassment have come to light, but employers are still to own the law, to implement its provisions and to ensure safe workplaces.

Similarly, the question of women in the informal sector, or women working as freelancers, or those in shifting workplaces, or indeed those for whom the workplace is the internet, have still to be addressed.

Also read: #MeToo Shows The Legal System Has Failed Indian Women, But There Is A Way Forward

Equally, as new instances of sexual harassment now coming out in the media have shown, the law needs to turn its attention to cases in the past. How are these to be dealt with? To whom can those affected address their complaints? Increasing numbers of instances of male harassment are also coming to public attention, and space needs to be made not only in the law but also in the minds of people, to address this.

There’s a great deal still to be done, but there’s little doubt that the battle has truly begun.

Urvashi Butalia, a signatory to the Vishakha petition, is a writer, and the co-founder of Kali for Women, an exclusively feminist publishing house.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.