‘Tried to End My Life’: A Sexual Harassment Survivor Opens Up
The fight against sexual harassment began long before ‘MeToo’. 
The fight against sexual harassment began long before ‘MeToo’. (Photo: iStock)

‘Tried to End My Life’: A Sexual Harassment Survivor Opens Up

After quitting her job, Seema*, lay in her bed, unable to move. Revisiting memories of being sexually harassed over and over again gave her sleepless nights. Before she realised it, she sank into clinical depression.

“I was 45 when I moved to Delhi in 2012. I have been a human rights activist all my life. After having worked extensively in Odisha and the Northeast, I decided to move to the capital to work with an NGO that specialises in gender and social justice. Little did I know that I would myself become a victim of sexual harassment at the hands of the NGO’s top bosses.”
Seema*, a human rights activist, who called out two top directors of an NGO for sexually harassing her

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(Listen to the survivor talk about her ordeal here.)

Seema joined the NGO in September 2012 and the harassment started two weeks into her work. The NGO is a prominent Delhi-based organisation that works for gender and social justice. It was helmed by two male directors.

“The structure of the organisation was such that there were two top (male) directors and a bunch of young women working in different departments. I was hired as the third member of the senior management. One of the directors, who was also a doctor, had a cabin to himself. The walls of his cabin were opaque. I was sharing my cabin with the other director. I would thus get sandwiched between the two alpha male directors.”

Sexist remarks, inappropriate jokes about women and their bodies, she claims, were often accepted banter in the organisation.

“Calling girls lesbians if girls would be giggling or holding hands. These men would say ‘look, two lesbians are standing’.”

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‘You Have a Sexy Daughter’

“Once I was in a meeting with both the directors when they suddenly started discussing my daughters. The discussion centered around how I dress, and how sexy my daughter was. One of them even went to the extent of rating my daughter, saying that she would fetch a lot of money, if need be. This conversation was loud and so disgusting that I could not keep my tears and started to cry helplessly.”

The conversation, Seema claims, later veered towards her own appearance as well.

“The Deputy Director took the conversation forward by saying that my assets could be sold for the release of the team if they were ever caught by the Naxalites in Odisha. Others also chimed in and made dirty remarks trying to put me down.”

Seema says she tried to dismiss these remarks as much as she could but found the constant intrusion into her private space becoming increasingly unbearable.

“There was a fear in general to speak about harassment. One of the girls I remember, had too many drinks to drink during her field work, she was accompanied by the Asst Director, and suddenly the whole office was talking about her loose morals, and within two weeks she was asked to leave.”

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‘I Would Hide The Minute I Would Reach Office to Avoid His Inappropriate Touches’

“The physical encroachment of my space would bother me a lot. One of the top directors would call me into his room and keep having an inconsequential monologue about himself and his work. I would just tolerate and come out. By then physical touches happened. Initially, I would ignore, thinking that it must have happened by mistake. But then they escalated to the extent that I would hide when I would go to office.”

The survivor would often go off to the field to avoid the prying eyes of the directors. However, this decision too, she says, was met with strong aggression and resultant harassment at her workplace for not having done things that she was supposed to do.

“I had returned from Rajasthan and organised a meeting with the partners. We were having a discussion with the partners when suddenly from behind the director yelled at me saying I did not know what I was doing, and I was not prepared. I quietly followed him into his room, where he threateningly started shouting saying my work was not up to the mark. His face was close to mine, I could feel his spit on my face, and for a moment I was so scared that he would grab my shoulders that I ran out of the room on the verge of tears.”

After being consistently harassed and humiliated at her workplace, she decided to put in her papers, but refused to go down quietly.

“I was virtually on the verge of a breakdown everyday. I thus decided to shoot an email to all the top directors of the NGO listing out the ways in which I had been systematically harassed at my workplace. Unfortunately, there was no ICC constituted in the NGO, so I had to just write to the top-most people.” 

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‘Could be “Anger” or “Bad Behaviour” but Not Sexual Harassment’

“The NGO had no external committees or internal complaint mechanism to lodge complaints of sexual harassment. Since the day I joined, there were no mechanisms to establish or lodge sexual harassment complaints. If somebody went through any harassment there is no scope for that to be addressed as one had to go directly to the Director.”

Seema also recounts how there was a general lack of trust and a sense of fear among women when it came to reporting sexual harassment.

After serving in the organisation for two years, she decided to quit on 3 March 2014. However, she did not quit in silence. She wrote an email to the governing body of the organisation detailing the trauma and the harassment that she went through. One of the members responded and said that they will set up an ICC meeting.

“It was a one-sided ICC that was set up. The report came after 4 months and it dismissed my charges. It said that the allegations could be ‘bad behaviour’ or ‘anger’ but not sexual harassment.”

The decision pushed Seema to depression.

“I was angry and wanted to take legal recourse, but I was tired and had fallen seriously ill. My depression was so bad that I could not get out of bed, and had to be hospitalised. I had to let go for my sanity.”
Recounts Seema

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‘#MeToo Movement Encouraged me to Talk About This on Social Media’

“It took me almost a year to recover from depression. Last year, when the #MeToo movement started, my daughters encouraged me to speak out in the public forum. And so I did.” 

Seema posted about her ordeal on social media on 2 November 2018, and luckily for her, the international donors of the NGO took cognisance of her complaints. They asked the organsiation to re-look into the case and give her justice.

Thus, the NGO re-opened her case, set up a second committee and this time, did deliver justice to Seema.

“A month and a half ago, a beautiful, sensitive committee was set up. They heard me out. They even heard the witnesses who were asked not to open their mouths. They realised that this behaviour was prevalent for many years but nobody complained about it. I wanted justice, I wanted this to be looked upon as sexual harassment. And I wanted assurances that the organisation would set up mechanisms in place to keep such behaviour in check.” 

The committee, she says, expressly said in its final report that the behaviour amounted to sexual harassment and that Seema had been sexually harassed in the organisation.

“I felt vindicated.”

“The enquiry committee has asked both the directors to step down. They have also asked them to write me a sensitive, unconditional apology. Apart from this, they have also proposed a collective leadership structure (with more than 1 woman in leadership roles) to counter balance male hegemony. They have also suggested that the NGO must undergo long term gender sensitisation training and structured introspection at regular intervals.”

When Seema was in depression, she tried to kill herself. Her family stood by her side despite the trauma. She is now in a better place. She has overcome her trauma and has found a job at a legal firm where she is helping survivors get justice.

She filed her first complaint in March 2014, a few days after she stepped down. She was served justice after five years.

“I ask women to keep complaining. It will take a while. In my case it took me seven years but I did get justice. Don’t stop, keep complaining and stand up against injustice.”

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