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Sexual Harassment Against Men Is A Reality We’ve Ignored For A Long Time

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By Zainab R. Haque:

Editor’s note: Over 92% of women in India experience some form of harassment, yet, we hesitate to speak up. To help create safe spaces for conversations around these experiences, Youth Ki Awaaz and Breakthrough India have come together to encourage more individuals to speak out and support one another. The piece below is a part of this collaboration. We ask people everywhere to come, #StandWithMe.

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The Vishakha Guidelines, on the basis of which the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill was passed in 2013, defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) including physical contact or advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Shiv* had experienced workplace harassment at the hands of his boss’ secretary. It started with casual sexually coloured remarks on his sex life, unwanted flirtations, general remarks on his body, and eventually inappropriate touching.

Since there were no office policies or laws that protected him, Shiv never spoke up. He “felt helpless, and vulnerable” and couldn’t approach anyone due to social stigma, and because he would be perceived as weak. Unable to work in this environment, Shiv eventually found the only way out; he left his job and sought employment elsewhere. Unlike Shiv, many men cannot leave their jobs and start afresh. They remain stuck in this abusive environment.

The Economic Times-Synovate Survey (2010) queried 527 people across Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Pune. The survey found that 19% of men had faced harassment at the workplace, and another 38% said that men were vulnerable in such situations. 66% of men in Delhi had been approached by their bosses for sexual favours. City wise, in Bangalore 51% have experienced harassment, 28% in Hyderabad, and 31% in Delhi.

Cases of harassment are also prevalent in the often perceived safe environments, such as schools. Rohan* went to an all boy’s boarding school where he was subjected to harassment by a senior. He didn’t approach school authorities as the chances of getting taken seriously were slim and because he believed he was “old enough to handle the situation on his own.” In his words, this prepared him to be able to stand up to abuse in the future.

Chetan* was 17 when he was assaulted by a shopkeeper who sat outside his university campus. The shopkeeper, who was in his 30s, sat beside him in an auto, and for a while, things were okay, until he started to move his hands on Chetan’s thighs. After repeatedly asking him to stop, Chetan resorted to violence and beat him up. Why didn’t he make an official complaint, or take him to the authorities? “What would I do filing a complaint? Waise bhi kya karega police?” (What would the police do anyway?).

Verbal or physical confrontation might have helped Rohan and Chetan. Most of the times, especially if the victim is a child, they are rarely able to stand up to their perpetrators or seek help. To be subjected to such a situation in one’s childhood can lead to many serious mental health issues later on in life unless proper help is sought. Sometimes, school going kids are unable to report such issues due to fear of social stigma. From a young age, these boys are instilled with toxic masculinity that tells them that to be a victim, or be in a situation where they might be perceived as weak is “unmanly.”

Another survey conducted by Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) in 2008, found that out of 500 respondents in 92 companies, 21% of men had been victims of harassment.

Arjun*, a performer, has experienced sexual harassment many times at the hands of spectators and clients. According to him, this happens every 15-20 shows, where women start to grab his behind or push themselves against him.

On being asked why he’s never said anything about it, he said “Because it wouldn’t be taken seriously, would it? If I were a woman it would have been a major issue, but if I told anyone, other men would say ‘Why are you complaining? What’s wrong with you?’ I try and give people the benefit of doubt, but it happens too many times for it to be a coincidence. Just because I’m smiling and being friendly doesn’t mean I’m okay with being touched without consent.”

Most people mistakenly believe that sexual harassment is limited to women as victims. This view is reflected in India’s laws as well. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, just as the name suggests, only addresses the grievances of women.

The sections of the IPC that deals with harassment, assault, and rape also address women as victims and men only as perpetrators. In the case of a woman-on-man harassment, there is no legal reprieve. Only in the cases involving men-on-men assaults can section 377 be evoked, which in itself is problematic.

Another problem that stems from the belief that men cannot be victims of sexual harassment is that sometimes, even the perpetrators don’t recognise their actions as harassment. For the purpose of writing this article, I put up a status on Facebook inviting those who felt comfortable enough to talk about their stories. I was alarmed by the number of responses I received. While anonymity was guaranteed, most did not feel comfortable seeing their stories in an article, just in case someone figured out their identity.

Some were even afraid that their abusers might read the article and connect the dots. I figured that maybe after keeping it to themselves for so long, they just needed a safe place to talk about their experiences. Most had never spoken about it to anyone, not even close friends, families, or even their partners.

Arjun* puts it across as, “I’m out there in the public eye to entertain you, and as much as you own me at that moment, you own me as the part of the entertainer that I’m playing with you. You own my mind and my time, not my body. I’m happy to click 5,000 pictures and stay two hours longer, but not on this condition.”

The idea of seeing women only as victims and men only as harassers comes from the belief that women are the weaker sex and men can only be the perpetrators, and never the victims themselves. Those who do manage to speak up and report harassment are often subjected to ridicule.

A just society addresses and acknowledges injustices regardless of gender, and we have a long we to go before we can achieve that. The Indian parliament has repeatedly resisted changing the laws to more gender neutral ones. How can a man, who has been assaulted hope for justice in a country where the laws are decidedly written against him?

*names changed

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If you’d like to share your own experiences – from dealing with everyday sexism and gender stereotyping, to period shaming, harassment and abuse , do share your stories using #StandWithMe, and help take this important conversation forward.

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Image source: Stefano Corso/Flickr
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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