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What’s Keeping Students From Taking Up Internships? Sexual Harassment.

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As a student looking to widen the scope of learning experiences, I have been taking up many internships. While it comes with many perks, there have been several incidents that have made me feel uncomfortable. ‘Casual’ harassment during the internship period is one of them. When we sign up for full-time internships, we are always filled with doubts about the location of the workplace and security concerns mostly. I remember when I was made to feel uncomfortable by my employer, and how my safety concern weighed down my level of enthusiasm to engage in the project. It was a really good government internship, but I decided to back out. I certainly know that I suffered a disadvantage, but I am sure there are countless similar narratives out there.

For students like us, who are in college and looking for opportunities in the form of internships to broaden their scope of experiences, harassment or sexual harassment can become a deterrent. For women, the situation weighs them down more heavily. When the workplace for them becomes an uncomfortable space or any of the activities required by the internship that creates a vulnerable space for us, we decide to opt out. This also means we end up giving up on opportunities that could have facilitated our career orientation or interests. So many women have gone through this, and have been facing the same, but they often choose to not bring this up because they think the internship is only for a short duration. This somehow normalises the concept of how interns could be immediate but easy targets of harassment by their employers.

It also appears as if interns do not have much security when it comes to protection against harassment, and most interns would be afraid to stand to report it for fear of ruining their career by throwing away an internship they worked so hard to get. This also means sustaining with constant fear and anguish over your decision to compromise on the feeling of your personal space being attacked. Predators think it’s easy to target interns because students are already in vulnerable positions and are unlikely to report such incidents.

The Vishaka Guidelines against Sexual Harassment at Workplace does not lay guidelines for harassment faced by students during their internships. A draft that was called the NUJS Policy on Protection of Students from Sexual Harassment during Internships had been prepared in 2014. But apart from that there has been no mechanism to check the excesses of any form faced by interns during paid or unpaid internships.

So many of my friends have been made to feel uncomfortable at their respective workplaces. The university callously shifts the responsibility if the internship has been arranged by the students themselves. There is also a need to consider the fact that many students are not aware of what should be done when faced with difficult situations like these. While some of the others face intimidation because of the positions these employers hold and are held by several other constraints. There are so many narratives and perspectives to hear from girls in my college. Here’s my story:

Over the summer, I had got through a paid internship opportunity with a government organization, and the project was supposedly being handled by a political figure. I had a few queries regarding the verification of my documents. When I called him, he asked me to send my details on Whatsapp. After a while, I felt that the conversation went along a different rhythm. Here is the screenshot of the message that he sent me that made me feel uncomfortable and disgusted.

Although it was a work-from-home internship, to work with him clearly made me feel uncomfortable and I was to meet him the next day. Hence, I decided to withdraw. I discussed this with my friends and the major problem that lied here was my dilemma to compare this discomfort with harassment. Hence, I did not report this. However, it is imperative to understand that employers might think it’s casual to just hit on you, but the level of discomfort this renders makes us frustrated and angry with the system.

There are so many questions associated with the incident. First of all, if challenging the discomfort created by these powerful men will at all yield a follow-up? Second, students become extremely wary of reporting since they are scared of how it may impact their prospects, and hence have the potential to adversely affect their career. This feeling may vary with respect to class and caste differences but those from marginalized communities face the brunt more. Third, how long do we have to compromise on our careers when a broader mechanism should be put in place to check and counter any form of harassment taking place.

There is an immediate and pressing need for gender sensitization workshops to be conducted to train employers to question how they treat students/interns. They should also be sensitized around how to draw a line when they’re interacting with interns, and understanding how a certain move can make someone uncomfortable. More importantly, there is a need to start conversations around such cases to challenge the callous normalization of harassment against students at their respective workplaces.


The image has been used for representation only.
Image source: Rasmus Lerfdorf/Flickr
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