Ensure environments safe for girls, women

By John Dayal

New Delhi, Nov. 21, 2018: The United Christian Action’s (UCA) Silver Jubilee Seminar, following its annual general meeting at the William Carey Hall of Celebration at Nisheman School, Delhi, on November 17 saw senior Church leaders, institution heads and activists listen to law experts and others call on Church institutions to take the moral leadership in ensuring environments safe for girls and women.

Archbishop Anil J T Couto of Delhi inaugurated the seminar with Delhi Church of North India Bishop Waris Masih, Baptist, Methodist and Salvation Army leaders in the audience of academicians, teachers and others.

The speakers were the well-known political and gender activist Kavita Krishnan, St Stephen’s College professor Dr Karen Gabriel, Supreme Court advocate Aparna Bhat and author, activist and advocate Sr. Teresa Paul of the Indian Social Institute.

Retired senior bureaucrat Esther Kar, who in her distinguished career has been secretary of the National Minorities Commission and Director General in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, chaired the seminar, the first of its kind held by any Christian group in New Delhi.

The UCA said it was willing to organize workshops across the country in conjunction with experts to bring about an environment in which victims were heard and action taken promptly. Among the many proposals mooted was a helpline on the patter of the one run by the United Christian Forum for pastors persecuted by communal elements and for people of the North-East.

In her opening remarks and the summation, Esther Kar said the church has a leadership role in society. It is an ethical and moral force, and must acknowledge, debate and reform issues arising out of oppressive power structures towards women.

The Vishakha judgment at the turn of the century, and the Act of 2013 to ensure protection of women in workplace set a benchmark. The recent incidents of #Me-too has brought to light situations and workplaces where women can be vulnerable including in church institutions. Situations are possible in any hierarchical or command structure including church institutions.

“We must not live in denial but discuss the issues transparently and try to find suitable structures and mechanisms ourselves without waiting for the law or the Government to intervene.”

The panelists also spoke about how the societal patrimonial mind-set has extended to the church as well and tend to show the woman as the weaker of the sexes, one who requires safety and security in the public space. This needs to change to ensure that no negative attributions and subjective prejudged conclusions are arrived at during inquiries.

The seminar tried to address issues of respect of authority and the dilemma of one who has been subjected to abuse of authority by someone one trusts speaking out. Issues of credibility of the complainant and the background bias of our cultural and societal upbringing were also highlighted. Consent of the woman in every situation was important and this is often taken for granted because of years of training and societal influences.

The seminar concluded with the resolve to continue the conversation, to audit our own institutions of the church to be able to correct the imbalances and to ensure that we are all equal and one in the body of Christ irrespective of gender, caste, colour and race.

In her address, activist Kavita Krishnan said, “It is easier to recognize and fight patriarchy and women’s oppression among ‘others’ (other communities, countries) than acknowledge it within ourselves and our own (families, faiths, institutions). The fight for gender equality must begin at home – recognising rather than denying the existence of gender oppression in our own families, faiths, organisations, parties.”

Unquestioned authority breeds sexual violence and gender oppression – therefore even the family and faith institutions, all faiths, display such violence. “We need to democratise and make authority accountable and transparent, and welcome the questioning and criticism of authority. We must recognise the many ways in which we try to evade accountability for preventing and punishing gender oppression: including victim-blaming, saying ‘he’s a great man, he’s incapable of this’, ’she’s a loose woman’, ’she’s lying’ and so on. Shaming and isolating complainants as well as their supporters is an ugly but age-old tactic that we need to fight,” she said.

Krishnan said communities need to understand and educate about consent, which is no ‘grey area’ but is quite simple. “Every sexual act requires affirmative, enthusiastic consent – simple. Many say the benefit of doubt in a rape complaint must go to the accused – I say men must always give women the benefit of doubt when it comes to consent: i.e. if you’re not sure she has enthusiastically consented, assume she HAS NOT CONSENTED.”

Also, power vitiates consent – so if someone is in a position of power (by virtue of being much older vis-e -vis a very young person, being some teacher vis a vis a student, being a Bishop vis-a-vis a nun) the nature of consent in their relationship with a subordinate must be questioned and cannot be assumed.

Sr. Teresa Paul said, “Every person has a right to work under just, favourable and dignified condition. In India, sexual harassment of women at workplace was recognized as a specific offence in 1997 in the case of Vishakha vs. State of Rajasthan and Others concerning the gang rape of a woman activist working against child marriages. The Supreme Court in its judgment famously known as the ‘Vishakha Guidelines’ held that ‘’each such incident results in the violation of the fundamental rights of ‘gender equality’ and ‘right to life and liberty’. The Court further held that gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and the right to work with dignity.

The guidelines imposed certain responsibilities on the employers to safeguard women against sexual harassment at the workplace. However, the implementation of the guidelines was poor across various sectors including the Government and the private sectors. And along with the increasing recognition and participation of women in the labour force, sexual harassment and gender based violence became increasingly common at the workplace. The “Me Too” campaign reveals that most of the stories of sexual harassment took place around the work premises.

India’s first legislation aimed at preventing and redressing sexual harassment of women at workplace came into force in 2013, i.e. 16 years after the Vishakha judgment. The Act which is consistent with the Vishakha judgment, seeks to provide every working woman, irrespective of her age or employment status, a safe and secure working environment free from sexual harassment.

The Act makes it clear that sexual harassment of women is not just limited to physical violations but it also means and includes unwelcome acts and behaviours of sexual nature. It can range from physical, verbal, non-verbal, visual to seeking sexual favours in exchange for benefits and creating a hostile working environment.

More significantly, the Act makes it mandatory for employers having more than 10 employees to set up Internal Complaints Committees not only just to redress incidents of sexual harassment but also to prevent and deter incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace.

In this context, the ‘Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) Guidelines to deal with sexual harassment at workplace’, promulgated by the CBCI is indeed a laudable and welcome step towards a greater empowerment and a new social reality for women in the Church and in the society. The document speaks about setting up Internal Complaints Committees at every workplace under the Diocesan and Province level and delineates the process of protecting the rights of women.

Sr. Teresa Paul said its implementation including the setting up of the Committees seems to remain unaddressed. Setting up accountabilities structures within the church is a must to ensure the proper implementation of its policy. Therefore, Church must be in the forefront in implementing its policy as sexual harassment violates the sacredness and dignity of every human person created in the image and likeness of God. “Thus protecting women from sexual harassment at the workplace is a not only a legal mandate but also a Divine mandate.”

Prof Karen Gabriel said institutions are not just structures, but are constituted by people. The nature of the relations between people determines the institutional culture. Gender equality and a safe work environment for women have to be a part of institutional culture.

Educational institutions are unique in three main ways: (a) education is the Great Equaliser, and therefore plays a pivotal role in change, gender equality, gender justice and women’s safety; (b) universities foster freedom and experimentation of ideas and of the self among all its members. They promote thoughtfulness, pushing boundaries, the quest for excellence; (c) they are populated by young people who are exploring ideas and themselves.

The Church, as an institution committed to equality and quality education has a pioneering role to play in the realisation of gender justice and the safety of women at the workplace. More so in the context of rising right wing forces that are threatening women’s rights. Today’s event must be understood as just a beginning.

There is a direct link between gender injustice and sexual harassment. As long as there is gender injustice, there will be sexual harassment. Safety cannot be taken to mean securitisation, over-monitoring and policing of women. That is tantamount to placing the responsibility for violence that women face on them.

There are several kinds of violence apart from sexual harassment that take place. It is necessary to have different fora for each of them. These forms of violence could be based on the caste, class, religion, sexual orientation, age and so on. All this needs to be factored into an understanding of violence in institutions including gender and sexual violence.

There must be safe and friendly spaces for conversations around sex, sexuality and sexual violence at all levels of education. The educative role of the ICCs must be enhanced. The complainant must be supported but due process has always to be followed during the inquiry. Consent is to be understood as active, freely given and ongoing, Dr Gabriel said.

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