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'Don't Shave Down There': Women Workers at Delhi Hospital Allege Sexual Assault

Women sanitation workers in Delhi government-run Burari hospital allege months of sexual abuse by supervisors.

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Gender
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(Trigger warning: Descriptions of sexual assault. *Some names have been changed to protect identity of survivors.)

"Meri ek aadat hai, jaise sabki aadat hoti haina. Neeche baal hone chahiye. Clean nahi hona chahiye. (I have a habit, like everybody has their own (sexual) preferences...I don't like it shaved down there. I prefer some hair.)" – This is an excerpt from a telephonic conversation, allegedly between Gauri*, a 40-year-old contractual sanitation worker at a government hospital in north Delhi's Burari, and her supervisor.

"We were fed up with what was going on in the hospital. When water went over the head, we decided we'll not take it anymore. I called him (the supervisor) and recorded this conversation on my husband's phone," an exasperated Gauri told The Quint as she stood outside the hospital on 26 December.

About a week ago, on 19 December, based on several such telephonic recordings, Gauri, along with her two other women co-workers, registered a complaint against her supervisors Neeraj Sharma, Deepak Adarsh, and manager Rajkumar at the Burari police station.

"Rajkumar, our manager at the hospital, repeatedly told us that if we keep him happy, only then will he let us do our jobs. He also asked me to take other women to him from time to time. He made me uncomfortable with remarks about my body," the women alleged in the complaint, as they detailed instances of alleged sexual harassment over the phone and in person at the hospital.
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Subsequently, an FIR was registered against the four accused under sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 354 (outraging modesty of a woman), 506 (criminal intimidation), and 34 (criminal act done by multiple people with common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

No arrest has been made in connection with the case yet.

While the accused have been suspended from the hospital for the course of the investigation, The Quint has exclusively learnt that this is not the first instance of sexual harassment reported by women workers in this particular hospital.

A previous FIR dated 6 June, also filed at the Burari police station, levelled similar serious allegations against two of the four accused in the recent case.
Women sanitation workers in Delhi government-run Burari hospital allege months of sexual abuse by supervisors.

On 19 December, a few workers registered a complaint against their manager and three supervisors at the Burari police station.

(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

The Quint spoke to several sanitation workers in the hospital who alleged that they were subjected to repeated sexual assault, threatened into silence, and denied minimum wages by the supervisors.

This is the story of how a small government hospital on the outskirts of the national capital became a centre of sexual exploitation of women sanitation workers belonging to oppressed caste communities.

'They Fired Me Because I Said No'

A 768-bedded multi-specialty facility, the Burari hospital was inaugurated on 25 July 2020 as a 'Dedicated COVID Hospital', and Rekha*, 34, was one of its first few housekeeping employees.

The sole breadwinner in her family, Rekha's monthly income from her hospital job ranged from Rs 7,000 to Rs 12,000, until her service was terminated abruptly in July 2023.

"We are contractual workers hired by an external company which in turn is hired by the hospital to supply staff. In July when the company changed, they asked several workers to go. Incidentally, only the workers who constantly raised their voice against injustices at the hospital were fired from their positions," she alleged to The Quint.

In July 2023, a firm called Global Ventures was given the contract for supplying manpower to the hospital.

Rekha detailed several instances where the accused demanded sexual favours from her. "That's the culture in this hospital. These people are not even discreet about what they do. The supervisors asked me to sleep with them multiple times...and when I said 'no', they took away my job," she claimed.

Women sanitation workers in Delhi government-run Burari hospital allege months of sexual abuse by supervisors.

Several women sanitation workers alleged that the accused threatened to fire them if they didn't agree to the latter's demands. 

(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

Several other workers alleged that the supervisors took advantage of their financial vulnerability to sexually exploit them.

"The concept of minimum wages exists only on paper. Whatever wage we get, we have to return some of it to the supervisors in cash. They tell us that the money is for the company that hired us. For most of us, whatever little money we make here is what our lives depend on. The fear of saying 'no' and losing this job is what they take advantage of," said another sanitation worker who lost her job around the same time as Rekha.

The Quint has reached out to Global Ventures over the allegations. The copy will be updated if they respond.

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'Several Complaints to Hospital Management Went Unheard'

On 26 December when The Quint visited the hospital, a workshop to "sensitise workers about workplace sexual harassment laws" was being conducted with approximately 25-30 women sanitation workers in attendance.

"Now that the matter has reached the media, they (hospital administration) are trying to cover up. Today, they told us that there is a committee where we can go and register such complaints. Why were we never told about this before?" questioned Gauri, who also attended the workshop.

Gauri and other women workers claimed that they made several verbal and written complaints to the hospital administration regarding the behaviour of the supervisors but no action was taken.

The Quint has accessed a written complaint addressed to the hospital's medical director and an FIR filed by a woman supervisor on 6 June against Neeraj and Adarsh, two out of the four people accused in the current case.
Women sanitation workers in Delhi government-run Burari hospital allege months of sexual abuse by supervisors.

Name, address, and phone number of the complainant has been concealed to protect identity.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

In her complaint, the survivor Preeti* alleged that "after an argument broke out between her and some workers, Neeraj and Adarsh who were her co-supervisors at the time, took her to a room and groped her."

While Preeti was transferred to another hospital by the parent company at the time, Neeraj and Adarsh also lost their jobs after the contract to supply manpower to the hospital was given to Global Venture.

In November 2023, however, the two were hired as supervisors again.

The Quint spoke to Ashish Goyal, Medical Director (MD) at the hospital. He said, "The matter is for the police to investigate. We have an ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) in the hospital, but we didn't receive any complaints regarding this matter. When we found out through media and social media, we immediately took cognisance. We are cooperating with the police and will regularly conduct workshops about women's safety in the hospital."

While he did not comment on why the two accused were re-hired despite a previous sexual harassment complaint, a senior official in the hospital administration, on the condition of anonymity, said that the responsibility to run background checks on the workers and supervisors is on the company, which is tasked with the supply of manpower.

"They will keep blaming each other, while we continue to suffer," said Rekha. "I come here every day since they terminated my contract. I plead them to give me my job...all this just because I said no," she continued after a brief pause.

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The Political Slugfest

Taking cognisance of the case the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), on 23 December, served a notice to the Delhi Police directing the concerned officers to thoroughly investigate the case and arrest the accused.

The DCW also asked for a detailed report of the action taken in connection with the case.

Meanwhile, in a note to Delhi Chief Secretary Naresh Kumar on Sunday, 24 December, Health Minister Saurabh Bharadwaj sought an Action Taken Report (ATR) within six hours.

Kumar, on the other hand, alleged that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) shared the report on social media much before the bureaucrat received it on email.

In return, Bharadwaj accused the Chief Secretary of sharing details of the ICC report with the media.

The Safai Kamgar Union (SKU), a union of sanitation workers, which is helping these women stage protests in the case, in a press statement, demanded the suspension of hospital authorities who failed to act in time.

"The sanitation workers led by SKU demand the immediate suspension of the Medical Director, the Medical Superintendent and the Director of Nursing Staff; inclusion of the names of the three sanitation workers who are complicit in the sexual harassment of the women sanitation workers in the FIR and immediate arrest of all the accused persons; immediate termination of the contract with the contract company, Global Ventures; the reconstitution of the Internal Complaints Committee that has representatives of sanitation workers and their union in it; and the provision of wage arrears to the sanitation workers as well as ensuring that all the statutory labour laws are enforced at the Burari Hospital," the union said in its statement.

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'We Are Treated Like Animals'

Outside the hospital as Gauri, Rekha, and other women workers prepared to hold a protest on 27 December, they weren't entirely hopeful that things will change.

"When we go and demand our rightful wages, they insult us and say, 'tumne shakal dekhi hai apni? 17,000 waali shakal hai tumhari? (Have you looked at yourself in the mirror? You think you deserve Rs 17,000 in wages?)," Rekha recalled.

Women sanitation workers in Delhi government-run Burari hospital allege months of sexual abuse by supervisors.

Two out of the four men accused in the recent FIR, were accused of similar charges in June by a co-supervisor. 

(Illustration: Chetan Bhakuni/The Quint)

"Tell me, who has their wages written on their face?" she asked.

"They don't think of us as humans," continued Gauri.

"They think we're animals. In the hospital, they had this room where they'd ask women to come and give them sexual favour. We were scared so nobody went alone. It was horrible as some of us sat outside and heard them force themselves on our colleagues," she added.

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