By Sonam Mittal:
In 2009, I joined as a volunteer for a well-respected environmental NGO, bright-eyed, idealistic, and ready for change. But in 2012, two years after I joined as an employee, my view of this place was completely and utterly undone, when an older male employee repeatedly sexually harassed me, and the senior management didn’t even blink.
One night at a hotel, on a work trip in October 2012, the man in question was drunk when he made an official call to me at around 10-11pm, telling me to vacate my room and insisting I sleep in his. He approached me physically despite my obvious discomfort, followed me around, insisted on force feeding me my birthday cake and sat next to me at breakfast when there were multiple other seats empty. At times, two of my male colleagues had to physically place themselves between the two of us to stop him from coming on to me.
While this was just one manifestation of misogyny forced on me, the ‘informal work culture’ the organization prides itself in already constituted such vile behaviour with impunity. I lost count of the misogynistic comments directed towards me and other women. My hard work as a fundraiser was dismissed with comments like: “It’s easy for you, you just have to smile and the supporter would cut off a hefty cheque for you.”
Further, senior employees have joked about my ‘character’ during official meetings, asking, “Who’s in her room today?” or “Is that person in her room, or in her?” People laughed, including those who would later constitute the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). If I tripped on the stairs and showed up in bandages the next day, everyone joked that I must’ve been drunk. When there was a theft at my place, everyone joked that I was drunk and passed out. These guys didn’t even spare my choice of food in my tiffin box. Even female colleagues (some of whom were part of the ICC) made me feel that it was all my fault, that people bullied me because I let them, that I didn’t know how to “set boundaries“. These were the same people who told a senior female employee she’s ‘hysterical’ because she’s ‘menopausal’. Her source of ‘hysteria’? The rampant sexual harassment that she wanted senior management to tackle and address.
I’d had such implicit trust in my fellow campaigners, activists and social workers that I never thought I’d have to familiarize myself with the mechanism of harassment complaints. When I got over my initial hesitations (fearing the resulting tensions,) and filed an official complaint two months after the incident, there was no follow-up, and no verbal or written communication that year, or the year after that. Vishaka Guidelines and the subsequent act, The 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act clearly instructs the ICC to carry out an internal investigation and gather evidence, neither of which was done. Instead, my harasser denied the entire incident, saying that ‘he didn’t mean it in that way!’ The official ‘punishment’ involved swapping his role with another colleague’s. I was told a man should get a second chance, even though two other female colleagues of mine had fallen victim to my harasser before me, which the senior management was fully aware of. In 2015, the senior management ordered my harasser to apologize to me through this email (supposedly the “penance” that “lacerates” him):
“I feel, I owe you a personal apology for my insensitive behaviour towards you. You have been a wonderful colleague and friend, and I would not intentionally hurt your feelings. Please accept my apology. I hope you will be able to forgive me. I respect you and your abilities, and I hope we can continue to work well together and be good friends.”
It is a disgrace that now, 2 years, 5 months and 17 days later the first official communication from the HR department comes to me. It is a disgrace that the justification for not taking further action is the HR head’s belief ‘that this behaviour would not repeat’.
If something like this was handled so poorly, how would they have treated a much graver incident?
In 2013, amidst this environment of victim blaming and trivializing sexual harassment, something happened to me that left me too terrified to speak, and even if I had, I knew no one in this organization would come to my aid.
It was after a party, when a male colleague whom I knew quite well found me unconscious and raped me. You cannot imagine the pain and fear I was engulfed in. Every morning I was painfully aware that my workplace was peopled with those who harassed, raped and bullied me. Some were my managers.
Doubt came swimming in. Was I at fault? Did I bring this upon myself? Would anyone in that workplace even believe me if I decided to complain about my rapist? It was only after I quit that I built up the courage to approach the HR head. They refused my complaint, giving me the explanation that no action can be taken against an existing employee on the allegations made by an ex-employee, and it didn’t matter if I was an employee at the time of the incident.
The string of incidents took a toll on my physical and emotional health. I was constantly stressed. I developed low self-esteem. I spent one year in denial, trying to forget the memory of those hands accessing my body without my permission, and the pain of my resultant injuries that lasted two weeks. I almost stopped eating and drinking water with a pointless hope to stop myself from performing basic bodily functions. My previous incidents in the organization had broken me down to an extent that even the thought of approaching a hospital to treat my injuries was far from my mind.
Going back to office was the most difficult thing. I had to face all the silent stares and smirks my rapist gave me on our work floor. I had to sit next to him and work along with him. Today I suffer further when I learn of more instances like mine within the organization. The man who raped me has harassed other employees and volunteers. I never had the strength to report my rape, neither to the police, nor to my employers. How could I when the “processes had failed” me once already?
Tired of the constant harassment, I decided to leave this organization. On informing my manager, I was laughed at further, with him saying he was relieved he didn’t have to do paperwork regarding my role any longer. They laughed about me even after I left the organization in 2014.
The trauma I endured was deemed inconsequential in the face of a new ‘crisis’ – government crackdown on NGOs. But the fashion in which the Modi government is treating the organization is no different than how it has treated its employees. Criticism and dissent had no place in this organization, which carries the motto of ‘You cannot muzzle dissent in a democracy’ in all its social media communications. Employees who were asking uncomfortable questions were silenced, bullied and thrown out.
And why this institutional inaction? The NGO delinked environmental justice from women’s basic human rights, despite the fact that women face the double injustice of climate change and gender inequality!
As a fundraiser attached to the organization, I had a direct, respectful working relationship with donors. I feel sad their money is now being wasted on the salaries of repeat sexual offenders; that their hard-earned money now sits in the bank account of my rapist; that donors are funding a senior management that has allowed all this ugliness. They have now launched a solar streetlight project that also aims to promote ‘women’s safety’. How ironic can that be!
The NGO ignored the mandates not just under Vishaka Guidelines but also under the 2013 Act timely action, time-bound communication and gender sensitization training for all employees. This NGO ignored my basic rights. It ignored me.
I’m fearless now. I’m stronger now. I don’t care if people respond to my story with personal attacks and fabrications, and call me an ‘attention-seeker’. My reality is much stronger than people’s simple perceptions. I know I’m not the only one, and I fight this not just for myself, but for the right of all women to live free from harassment, especially in civil society.