Almost lost among the headlines flagging the recent, ongoing outing of men accused of sexually harassing women in workplaces are reports on the extraordinarily prompt action that has followed many of these revelations: inquiries and investigations, transfers and administrative leaves, resignations and suspensions, dropping of actors from films and films from festivals, exits from one company, dissolution of another, and at least one complaint registered with the police -- all in the space of a little more than a week.
Not everyone may be satisfied with the action taken so far, and some people, no doubt, disapprove of the summary action taken against a few of the accused, even if much of it is temporary, pending inquiry. But to anyone who has followed the course of complaints about sexual harassment experienced at workplaces in India in the past -- certainly in media workplaces -- what has happened over the past few days is nothing short of miraculous.
From a situation where even private apologies were rare, there are now public mea culpas. Where once editorial and managerial bosses routinely disbelieved complainants or advised them to quietly grin and bear it or quit, companies are now issuing public statements assuring appropriate action. Where once even friends and family invariably dissuaded survivors from lodging complaints, and colleagues played ostrich, there is now widespread support for those who have gone public with their harrowing experiences. Where once discussions on sexual harassment and harassers were largely confined to the whisper network, the subject has now become a political hot potato.
The fact that even close relatives of at least one accused (all Bollywood celebrities) have expressed solidarity with women who may have been hurt by his behaviour suggests that sexual harassment is finally being acknowledged as an unacceptable reality. With professional bodies of various kinds speaking out on the subject for the first time, and some professional associations quickly setting up committees to address this long-standing problem at least now, there is hope that survivors will no longer be isolated and left to fend for themselves as they have been all this time.
The sudden, unprecedented institutional response can, of course, be seen as too little too late. After all, the Supreme Court had defined sexual harassment in a judgment 21 years ago, placing the onus on employers to prohibit, prevent, address and redress such behaviour in workplaces. It has been five years since the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was passed, superseding the 1997 'Vishaka Guidelines'. The law not only specifies procedures for dealing with complaints but also includes a separate section listing the various duties of an employer under the Act.
There was a scramble by some media houses to comply with the Act, at least in terms of setting up Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs), after the Goa police initiated action against editor Tarun Tejpal in November 2013 in a case involving sexual assault of a young journalist.
However, it is clear that the current #MeToo movement in Indian media has been the shock treatment required to jolt more organisations into more effective action. It remains to be seen whether or not they follow through on the initial kneejerk reaction to the public naming and shaming. In the past, several known offenders were reinstated once the controversy died down — often after the complainants were forced out.
In any case, much more remains to be done. There are indications that at least a few media houses are going beyond the minimum requirement of setting up ICCs to plan activities such as town halls and workshops to create more awareness about sexual harassment and company policies and measures to address the issue. According to a recent newspaper report, there has been a sudden rush by a range of companies to hire firms offering anti-sexual harassment training.
Workshops and awareness programmes that can help create a safe working environment are actually mandated by the law. But clearly the problem of sexual harassment will not disappear without a fundamental change in gender relations in general, and many men's attitudes towards women and girls in particular – not only in workplaces but in society as a whole. And, of course, the movement needs to move beyond high profile areas of work to focus attention on sectors in which women (also men and transgenders) are even more vulnerable, with even less access to justice.
Whether in workplaces or elsewhere, the most effective agents of change would be all the men who do not approve of such behaviour. They may well make up the majority but are often unsure what they can do about it; they remain helpless bystanders and, thus, involuntary enablers. Some survivors have said their greatest disappointment has been the inaction of colleagues, even when they could see what was going on. Yet others have said that some male colleagues have later apologised to them for not intervening when they could and should have. Happily, quite a few men are now speaking out. It is time for more "woke" men to join them.
(Ammu Joseph is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author of Making News: Women in Journalism. Views expressed are personal.)