By Nishtha Relan:
While we were celebrating Sania Mirza’s victory in the US Open – which is great in itself – by debating whether she is still ‘India’s daughter’ or only ‘Pakistan’s daughter-in-law’, in a tragic incident, four young female athletes training at the Water Sports Centre of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Alappuzha, Kerala, carried out a mass suicide pact; allegedly because they were being harassed by their seniors and the warden. The four women, found unconscious in their room, had consumed a local poisonous fruit together. This led to the death of 15-year old Aparna, while the other three women (aged 14, 16 and 17) are still fighting for life.
A strict probe has been ordered into the matter by the rattled Home Ministry, with the Union Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal promising the strictest possible action against whoever would be found guilty. According to the family members of the deceased Aparna Ramachandran, the women were being physically and mentally harassed, and Aparna had suffered injuries two weeks backs, when thrashed by a coach with an oar. It is extremely tragic that the women had nowhere to go, to escape from the constant teasing and reprimands and had to resort to committing suicide instead of being able to report the harassment or seeking help. What’s worse is that this is not the first report of harassment that has troubled the sports community in India, including the government established SAI, caught in a scandal involving one of its coaches accused of sexual harassment a year ago.
Women in India have few opportunities to take up and continue with sports, for various reasons. Girls are discouraged, from childhood itself, from participating in sports events, generally considered the domain of men. Adolescence brings on the issue of body image, which when paired with the idea of modesty being the virtue of women, further steals away these opportunities from women who are already suffering from gender-bias in the arena of sports. Another pathetic aspect of India’s sporting picture is that the financial allocation is ridiculously disproportionate. Where the men of the Indian national Cricket team enjoy luxurious fee, excluding the money they generate from uncountable advertisements and contracts, no other team gets substantial funds or the amount of attention and facilities they deserve from the government. Moreover, there is hardly any stability of career in sports for women. With all these factors already messing up the gender ratio of our active sportspersons, incidents of harassment and misconduct are the last straw!
There have been several incidents of caste discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying with female athletes in India, not excluding the bad living conditions many of them have to tolerate, and of course, most of them probably go unreported or unvoiced, as is the sad state of affairs here. In 2010, a combined charge of sexual harassment levied against M K Kaushik, coach for the Indian Hockey team by all 31 players of the women’s Hockey squad should have been an eye-opener about the ground reality of several such incidents of sexual favours demanded and enforced.
The absence of a strong Gender Sensitisation body outside the control of the harassing organisation/supervisors is another issue that needs to be highlighted here. To think that if the 15-year-old Aparna or her colleagues could have reported an account of the harassment to a friendly ear, they wouldn’t have had to take such a drastic step! Such sensitisation bodies with active and effective help-lines, if established for the country’s sports and development institutions, could help to bring down the number of harassment incidents, until those in power can be held accountable to the public and the performers in a transparent manner.