In a tragic incident, Shylaja Praveen, an employee of ING Vysya Bank in Bangalore committed suicide, with the alleged cause being the sexual harassment that she faced at the workplace. While the complete details are not available, it appears that Shylaja had repeatedly complained to the authorities at work as well as taken her case to the Karnataka State Women’s Commission, only to receive no concrete help. .
Tragic as the situation is, it perhaps throws light on some ugly things in our society, beyond Shylaja’s fate itself. Atleast as far as urban India is concerned, and especially in sectors like financial services, we are living in a fairly buoyant job market. If Shylaja felt that the harassment was intolerable, and she could not fight against it anymore, it is not clear why she did not look out for another job. (Note, I am not advocating that the onus of moving away lies on the victim, simply that it seems to be a better solution than killing oneself). If she chose to kill herself instead, one can imagine the anguish that the harassment must have caused her, perhaps compounded by the knowledge that she could not do anything about it. It also shows what a stigma harassment is on the victim. In a fair society, it would be the harasser who would have to hide his head in shame. In our society, it is the victim who feels ashamed.
This young woman, had the courage to take up the case and go up to her superiors as well as the state women’s organization. And for having the courage to speak out, in a situation where these things are often hushed out, she pretty much got nothing for her pains. Is it any wonder that the majority of cases never even come to light. The case also shows how these complaints are handled. The State Women’s Commission says it asked her to go speak to her superiors. But why could they not have checked with the organization whether there was a mechanism in place, and being followed, to address such complaints? Now ofcourse, they claim that the organization has no so such mechanism in place, while the company on the other hand has issued the standard diplomatic speak about having policies in place.
Theoretically, India has fairly strong laws in place against workplace harassment.
This article provides an excellent overview of how the ‘Vishakha Guidelines’ came about, and what mechanisms they prescribe for addressing sexual harassment at work.
As the article mentions, the Vishakha Guidelines clearly state that, It is the duty of the employer to:
– Prevent sexual harassment
– Provide mechanisms for the resolution of complaints
All women who draw a regular salary, receive an honorarium, or work in a voluntary capacity in the government, private sector or unorganised sector come under the purview of these guidelines.
Unfortunately, organizations mostly honour these in the breach. While Shylaja’s end was terrible, I hope cases like these will atleast motivate companies to take such issues more seriously.
Update: It seems as though evidence in the case has been tampered with – a suicide note left by Shylaja as well as sms messages sent by Bharath (the alleged harasser) to her. The police are obviously not revealing all the details, how they came to know this, for instance, but it seems logical that someone who killed herself due to harassment would want to point a finger at the culprit. The absence of a note is therefore puzzling, I guess.