'Before I knew what was happening, he molested me. I just remember running for my life, away from him and to the safety of my colleagues.'

I was sexually harassed by a colleague fired by my company a Bengaluru professional writesImage for representation - Photo by Leon Israel/Wikimedia Commons
Blog Workplace harassment Tuesday, August 23, 2016 - 18:38

Kavya*, a 31-year-old woman in Bengaluru was allegedly molested at her workplace by a director in her company in 2014. He did not molest her again, but continued to sexually harass her. Along with other management personnel, he also targeted her in other ways for reporting against him. She was finally fired last September.

Kavya claims that there are other women who have also been victims of his sexual advances, but are too afraid to come forward. She held on to her job for as long as she could, to help her family but also to secure justice. Early this year, she approached Vimochana forum for Women's Rights, a Bengaluru-based NGO, which has now started an online petition on change.org demanded redressal for the treatment meted out to her. You can access the petition here

According to the petition, Vimochana wrote to the company's CEO in the US but did not receive any acknowledgement. Kavya suspects that the US office did not take cognizance of the letter and forwarded it to the Bengaluru office instead. The Bengaluru office replied to the letter but it was not "endorsed by any legitimate authority".

Kavya is still struggling to get justice. This is her story.

***

I started working at the branch of a US-based MNC in Bengaluru in February 2014. My husband, a photographer, wanted to set up his own studio and business. So we took a loan and though my actual work was that of a call center employee, my papers said ‘account manager’. I continued working at the MNC to help share the financial load.

But a few weeks into the job, something happened which drastically changed the course of my life.

My shift would end at 3am and on February 28, 2014, like any other day, I was packing up to go home when one of the directors of the company turned up. Before I knew what was happening, he molested me. He sexually harassed me. I just remember running for my life, away from him and to the safety of my colleagues.

They had no committee to deal with sexual harassment complaints**, no female HR so I had no idea who to turn to. I was shocked, but I had commitments to my family, to my husband who was finally doing what he always wanted to do and to my five-year-old daughter.

So I went back and surrounded myself with friends after my shift was over, determined to not give him another chance to do what he did to me that night. I put up with his lecherous eyes and his presence behind my chair, breathing down on me while he pretended to observe my work. It made me cringe and recoil, but I grit my teeth and kept working for my family.

But by September that year, the staring and stalking began to break me down. I reported his mental harassment to the Managing Director in the company. The MD called a meeting which had no women and told me that it would be taken care of. I was a little relieved, but not entirely convinced.

And sure enough, it got worse. He began to pick out my friends, telling them to not speak to me, or go for breaks with me. I would call up my husband crying at 2am because he was isolating me, bit by bit. I wanted to leave but no one would hire me because I hadn’t even completed a year in the company.

The actual blow, however, came when I found out in February 2015 that I needed to get my right knee operated to remove a cyst. We did not have enough liquid cash so I appealed to my company to release the six months’ worth of incentives they were withholding. But right till the day of my surgery, they kept me hanging. Finally, the money my husband was supposed to use for his studio went into my surgery in March 2015.

I don’t know whether it was because I couldn’t walk or was unwell, but they took advantage of my illness. They blocked my access to the email which I was using to send copies of my medical consultation and bills to the company. They demoted me. And all this while, I was in pieces, tearing my hair out over what was so wrong about complaining against a man who took advantage of his position to touch me without my consent. I began to break down mentally and would even scream at my daughter for no reason. I had hit rock bottom.

I finally went back to work a month later to find that the whole management had turned against me. I tried complaining to the US-based CEO, but he ended up forwarding the complaint to my harasser. In one of the meetings, an HR person told me that if I wanted to grow in the company, I’d better be okay with being in the director’s “favourable” books.

I had tried everything I could within the company but nothing worked. So I finally went to Karnataka State Women's Commission, upon whose escalation, an internal grievance committee was formed in the company in June 2015. Before I could get some respite, I realised that the people I had complained were part of this committee.

When I escalated the matter to the Labour Ministry again, a second committee was formed. I was told by the company's advocate that I would have to appear for a meeting, where the man who had ruined my life would interrogate me. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bear to sit in front of the man who had taken away my peace of mind, my income and my family life.

So I asked if I could bring my husband or a legal advisor. But they refused. I even asked them for a copy of the investigation report of the enquiry conducted till date so I could pursue the case independently in court. In response, my services were terminated on October 31m 2015 at 3am.

How did I know I was fired? I was working and around 2am, the internet on my computer got disconnected. I called the IT department and it was them who told me that I had been terminated.

HR officials and other management staff surrounded me when I protested that night. They threatened to cancel my 3am cab ride home if I did not hand over my company credentials. They had fired me, just like that. Snapping finally, I called the police and told them everything. Afraid of being arrested, the company officials sent me back home in a cab.

The FIR was filed eight days later. But almost a year has passed but the police are reluctant to file a chargesheet. Why? Because there was no “physical evidence” that I had been molested. No physical evidence of the amount of mental harassment I had been put through in more than a year. Because no one saw it happening and those who were put through something similar were scared off into keeping quiet.

Now, none of my former colleagues speak to me. Some of them were my friends. I cannot find a job because I have no documents except a termination letter. The one place which was willing to hire me insisted that I take care of this unfinished business before I join.

I’m running from pillar to post for my unlawful termination: the court, the Labour Ministry, Women and Child Development Ministry… there’s nothing we haven’t tried.  There is no door we haven’t knocked. But what hurts me the most, is that there is still no validation for the incident which started it all – all because there was lack of “physical evidence”.

I send my daughter to my mother’s house whenever we have to discuss the case but sometimes when my husband and I go out, she asks me, “Mumma, are you going to the police station?”

Our debt weighs us down but I have to keep paying my lawyer because I’m not willing to lose this case. Because if tomorrow another lecherous man dares to look at my daughter the same way he looked at me, I’ll know what to tell her. I’ll know how to fight. And that’s the only thing that keeps me going. 

 

**The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act 2013, mandates that workplaces, including those owned by foreign companies have internal committees to provide redress when such situations arise.

*Name changed on request

 

(Written as narrated.)

 

This story has been updated.

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