Sexual Harassment

‘I would earlier think that men harass me because I can’t see. But when I spoke to other blind and sighted friends I came to know that all women face this. Only that we blind are more prone. Then I understood that I should be confident, strong, and use my wits in such a situation. That is the way to handle and react.’

Vanita, 40, visually impaired


I am visually impaired. While helping me cross the road, the person sometimes brushes against me. I feel uncomfortable. What should I do?

In public transport like buses and trains, women often experience men rubbing against them or feeling them up. On the streets too, women report being followed, stared at, touched and subjected to unwanted and disturbing lewd remarks and actions. These are all forms of sexual harassment, which is a criminal offence. External Website that opens in a new window

Sexual harassment in public places and on the streets is a common phenomenon External Website that opens in a new window that is not necessarily linked to your impairment. However, you may feel at a loss as to how to react because of your impairment – mind you, even nondisabled women face the same problem! Says Snehal, a counsellor from Mumbai-based NGO, Akshara, ‘We had a focus group discussion with visually impaired women. Many had gone through a similar experience. One of them who had narrated this incident said that she did not do anything. They all had felt uncomfortable but had kept quiet. I would say, in such a situation, it is always better to react External Website that opens in a new window than to keep mum. You can ask the person to take off his hand. Speak loudly, so that the people nearby can hear it. Someone will come to help you. If not, at least passers-by will know what the man has done. Alternatively you can scream out for help.’

You may need help in crossing a busy road, but that doesn’t mean you need to accept harassment from those who offer to ‘help’. Take polite control of the situation if you can and establish your boundaries. Perhaps you could tell the person how you want them to guide you, holding only your cane or your elbow. Decline help you don’t need even if given with the best intentions. Be confident and assertive, follow your instincts and be assured that you are in the right.

My daughter has entered college and I am worried that people may take advantage of her because she is in a wheelchair. How can I help her be safe?

Your concern is absolutely understandable.A research study confirms that sexual harassment is rampant in colleges External Website that opens in a new window in different parts of India. In this study, 61.7% of the women students interviewed said they had personally experienced sexual harassment in their colleges, either by teachers, non-teaching staff or by fellow students.

Many students don’t know what to do when a teacher begins to act sexual with them, either in the way he looks at them or a part of their body, makes suggestive remarks, pretends to bump into them by accident, or asks for sexual favours. They are often too scared to openly challenge this for fear of losing marks in a test or being failed in the exams. Fellow students are also perpetrators; staring, passing lewd comments, brushing or rubbing against, cracking sexual jokes, or wolf-whistles – any unwelcome acts which make a woman feel uncomfortable are included under the definition of sexual harassment. External Website that opens in a new window

An additional problem is that sometimes women and men find it difficult to distinguish between flirtation, sexual attention, and harassment. Bollywood films often show the hero whistling at or stalking the heroine on campus, wrongly called ‘eve-teasing’ External Website that opens in a new window This might lead some men to think this is the way to express their interest. For women though, this can be a terrorising experience and often falls in the category of sexual harassment. The fear of this happening however cannot keep women from going to college or enjoying their campuses! The key thing is for a woman to identify what is unwanted or unwelcomed by her, and recognize that as sexual harassment.

Being in a wheelchair does not increase or decrease your daughter’s chances of being harassed, but it may limit how she might react – because of her restricted mobility running away may not be an option. Speak to her about alternative ways of reacting External Website that opens in a new window to such a situation, or at the very least being able to recognize such a situation. Leave the channels of communication open for her and encourage her to talk about any such unsettling instances with you or her friends. Your daughter should know that she can confront the perpetrator, be vocal about her displeasure, and that you are with her.

If the harassment is serious and sustained, she can approach the Women’s Development Cell of her college and lodge a formal (written) or informal (anonymous) complaint with the relevant committee. If she needs immediate help, she could call you, a trusted friend or a helpline for women and children. External Website that opens in a new window Your support is critical in strengthening her belief that she can effectively deal with possible instances of sexual harassment in college.

I am hearing impaired. My male colleagues keep talking amongst themselves and looking at me in an odd way that makes me uncomfortable. What do I do?

Women with disabilities often face ‘double discrimination’ – as women and as persons living with certain disabilities. You may want to think about the source of the discrimination you face: is it your identity as a woman or your impairment? Either way, if it makes you uncomfortable and is having an impact on your productivity and wellbeing at work, you need to address it. If you feel that the harassment is because of your impairment, try and talk to them. They may not be doing it intentionally and may stop once you explain your perspective. Sharing your feelings with a colleague may help; you could request that colleague to be with you when you confront those troubling you.

On the other hand, if the behaviour is sexual and is offensive to you, you will need to approach it differently. Sexual harassment at the workplace External Website that opens in a new window is commonly experienced by working women across cities and across sectors: Sanhita, an NGO in Kolkata, estimates that 35 per cent of women in the formal sector in Kolkata have faced some form of sexual harassment, NGOs Hengasara Hakkina Sangha in Bangalore and Sakshi in Delhi have found that it is widely prevalent in these cities (up to 49 per cent) and that actual numbers are far greater than surveys indicate. In 1997, the Supreme Court of India issued the Vishakha Guidelines External Website that opens in a new window that recognizes this reality and makes it compulsory for all offices to have mechanisms to deal with it.

Following a person, staring, standing too close, unwanted brushing, stroking, or touching, making suggestive facial expressions and gestures, promising a work benefit in return for a sexual favour, or threatening to harm her professionally if certain sexual acts are not undertaken all constitute sexual harassment. The critical factor is whether the behaviour is unwelcome: the impact of the harassment on the recipient is more relevant than the intent of the perpetrator.

Confronting someone who harasses you is always daunting but those who have done so will tell you that speaking up is the best way to stop it. If the harassment doesn’t stop in spite of your repeated objections, raise the issue with a senior or with the HR department. If your office has complied with the Vishakha Guidelines they would have a Sexual Harassment Committee where you could lodge a complaint. It is helpful to have detailed records of instances of harassment (for instance, on x date he left a note on your desk, or a pornographic picture, or on y day he made lewd gestures) which will help the committee when it conducts its inquiry. If such a committee doesn’t exist, push for its formation. Alternatively, you can also go to the police station and lodge a complaint under section 354 and section 509 of IPC. Approach a local NGO for support if needed.

Men often pass ‘dirty comments’ when my daughter walks on the road. She is mentally challenged and I think her body language attracts unwanted attention. How can I help her?

Mentally challenged people make sense of the world in complex and different ways. For them, following social cues and societal protocols can be extremely challenging. Parents of mentally challenged women sometimes speak of the difficulties they have in preventing their daughters from touching themselves or baring parts of their body in public, even though this is done in child-like innocence. The wider public may misunderstand these actions, leaving mentally challenged women more vulnerable to harassment and abuse. Mentally challenged women may also face abuse because they cannot understand that certain actions are sexually abusive, or are not able to articulate or report it. Or because they are often consciously or unconsciously taught to be docile and comply with everything and everyone, and not given a chance to express themselves and exercise their own will.

Says Ratnaboli Ray, a mental health worker from Anjali Foundation, ‘The first thing you need to do is through your words and actions tell her that even if something has happened, I am with you. With all your problems, failures, miseries, I am with you. This attitude will help you elicit information out of her. Most often what happens with parents is that in all the protectionism, if anything happens with their daughter, they get angry and start condemning her. Okay an unwanted thing has happened with your daughter, but don’t get scared, don’t be upset. Stand by her. Once you learn and understand what is happening with her you can take further steps of either involving the police, or the psychiatrist etc. Start training her about good and bad touch and wanted and unwanted attention. To make the learning easier for her, you could even walk up to the place where she is generally harassed. By your reaction she will gently pick cues and understand what is to be done in such a situation.’

My caregiver helps me bathe, dress, eat etc. Sometimes while performing certain tasks, she touches me inappropriately. I feel very uncomfortable, but what can I do?

Sometimes the task your caregiver needs to perform may be of a personal nature which may feel intrusive if you are not used to it. For instance, if he or she is changing your diapers or inserting your catheter, the lines of privacy may feel blurred. Ask yourself a couple of questions to be clearer about the nature of your discomfort. Is the act (of inserting your catheter) feeling awkward? Is it the touch which is somehow wrong? Was it accidental or intentional? Has it happened just once, or has it been happening over and over again? Trust your own reaction. You will be able to decipher a good touch from a bad touch. If the touch is unwelcome, then it certainly is a violation.

You first need to communicate your discomfort to your caregiver, but the way you do it will depend on who it is. If it is a hired caregiver, you could explain to them how you like to be bathed or dressed and tell them to not do whatever they were doing to make you uncomfortable. If you can’t speak to your caregiver, or the unwelcome behaviour continues, do talk to another family member you trust. It may be more difficult to speak out if the caregiver is a member of your family; speak to a trusted family member in that case. They can help you put an end to this.