Netizens wonder why women hadn’t come out against TVF founder Arunabh Kumar earlier. We tell them why. (Photo Courtesy: iStock)
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This Week’s TVF Episode: Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Harassment

“But why would you be silent for so long after a man groped your breast?” a tweet said.

“What is it about a woman alleging sexual harassment that brings out a deep-set love for logic and coherent timelines among Indians?” I asked myself as I trawled through Twitter after a medium.com post alleging sexual harassment against The Viral Fever co-founder Arunabh Kumar went viral.

The post led to other women coming out against Kumar, speaking about how they had been harassed by him as co-workers, freelancers, and even neighbors.

But the backlash faced by these women, when they chose to come out individually to detail their experience, is disturbing, and frankly for 21st century India, quite shameful.

A common refrain to every woman who came out (The Quint has spoken to five women personally) was “but, why didn’t she speak out before? Why only NOW?”.

So, here’s a handy compilation for why women don’t report sexual harassment in the workplace, or sexual assault of any kind, immediately. It is by no means comprehensive, but think of it as a handy reminder to refer to, the next time you have an urge to relentlessly question an allegation of sexual harassment?

1. Losing a Job Or Worse, Legal Consequences

TVF’s statement, responding to the anonymous post alleging sexual harassment published on medium.com, is the best example of why women don’t report sexual assault.

Instead of initiating an internal inquiry, a reputed media start-up decided to respond to allegations of sexual harassment with thinly-veiled threats of bringing the author to ‘severe justice’ and called the allegation ‘ludicrous’.

Often, the fear of losing the job, or facing lifelong unemployment is far greater. In a survey conducted by Indian Bar Association on sexual harassment at the workplace, nearly 68.95 percent of participants said they did not complain to the internal complaint committee in the workplace, for ‘fear of retaliation’ or ‘subsequent repercussions.’

If this is how an organization responds, by questioning their identity, with possible serious legal retribution, then why should a woman report sexual harassment?

2. The Fear of Not Being Believed

“We have your word against him. How can we expel him?”

One of the former employees of TVF, who experienced sexual harassment by a colleague, told The Quint that this is how the HR responded when she filed her formal complaint. And her case is not an isolated one — whether in start-ups or established corporate giants, reporting sexual harassment in the workplace is tough because either no one believes you, or there is no specific committee to lodge a complaint.

Manisha Chachra of IndiaSpend, writes of a woman who reported sexual harassment she experienced in a non-profit organisation based in New Delhi; only to be told by her boss that “ it was all my fault.” She ended up leaving her job.

In start-ups, which are often defined by a culture of informality and ‘bro’ culture, a woman’s complaint is conflated with her inability to ‘have fun.’ Sindhu Kashyap of YourStory.com, a start-up-centric digital publication, writes of a woman who was “ostracised” at her workplace after she reported sexual harassment because it was “a team of men” and “the ‘bro-code’ was pretty strong.”

And this is when most workplaces in India don’t have an internal committee to address sexual harassment according to the Vishaka Guidelines. According to a FICCI study, 36% of Indian companies, and 25% of multinational companies, do not have an internal committee. What about the unorganised sector?

So stop asking a victim of sexual harassment to ‘file a proper complaint’, if she chooses to come out publicly? Maybe, she didn’t have the choice.

3. Am I Blowing it Out of Proportion?

But how do you define sexual harassment? Is asking a colleague out on a date harassment? For most women (and men) in the workplace in India, definitions of sexual harassment are vague.

Which is why, when a woman comes out with an allegation, there’s always a hint of uncertainty associated with it — ‘not sure if it was sexual harassment or if I’m blowing it out of proportion.’ For any woman in India, ‘tolerating’ certain behaviour in the workplace is often considered to be ‘a part of the job’. So how do you define sexual harassment?

This is where the Vishaka Guidelines come in.

The guidelines, necessary to be implemented in an organisation of more than 10 people, define sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication)” which includes “physical contact”, “a demand for sexual favours”, “sexually coloured remarks”, “showing pornography” and “any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.”

A day-to-day parameter to check whether you’re being sexually harassed or not, is lawyer Karuna Nundy’s criteria in a Hindustan Times article, “you know it when you see it.”

The testimonies of the women against TVF co-founder Arunabh Kumar are unverifiable at this stage (though, how will you verify sexual assault?), as no FIR has been filed, and an investigation is yet to take place.

But even if there are allegations, how does it preclude your duty to listen to what the allegation is?

One needs to empathise, in whichever way you can, and to ensure that whatever you say doesn’t make it harder for a woman who has never spoken out about her experience of sexual harassment. It is only because she was afraid that no one would believe her.