What do you do when someone tells you they have been sexually harassed? The second wave of the Me Too movement in 2018 in India showed us that sexual harassment at workplace is massively widespread. It also showed that the need of the hour is to be a good ally to the movement.
Believe the survivors
“Believing the survivor is the first step to being an ally,” says journalist Sandhya Menon. Sandhya was one of the many women who took to social media to speak out against her sexual harassers. Later, many women also confided in her and told their own stories where they faced sexual harassment.
"Not being believed, or being called a liar, is one of the biggest fears most survivors have and can compel them into silence for years,” says Chinmayi Sripada, who spoke out about sexual harassment she faced from Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu. She was also one of the most vocal voices during the movement in 2018.
“Since they are the ones who are paying a big price professionally, emotionally and socially, it becomes difficult for them to take it forward," says activist Cynthia Stephen.
Cynthia is a writer, independent researcher and journalist and has worked with several Internal Committees that have been formed to tackle sexual harassment at the workplace. “As a bystander and as an ally, the least we can do is stand by them and support them.”
Survivors’ needs are a priority
“Survivors speak up for different reasons. They may speak up for catharsis, for warning other women or to bring their alleged harasser to justice, even if it’s anonymous. And while it’s natural to be curious about who they are and what made them break their silence now - it is NOT up to you to tell their story,” says Chinmayi.
“And your personal stand aside, you cannot force them to take the formal or legal route if they do not want to,” says Cynthia.
Call out your loved ones
When you see your loved ones indulging in victim shaming or blaming the victim, it is important to tell them that it is problematic to do so.
“I think it is important to call them out within a family, among your family members and confront them directly, if that is possible,” says Sandhya.
What to do when the accused is someone you know
It is easy to think of perpetrators as a third person or someone outside your immediate circle. But what happens when the person who has been called out is someone you know, or worse, a loved one? Believing survivors in such cases is difficult, all three of them say, but it is a necessity.
“It is really hard, I know, to believe the survivor in this context, but it is important to support the survivor and not attack them. Refrain from attacking, discrediting or shaming the survivor - personally or publicly. At least have an attitude of support,” says Cynthia.
Check your privilege
Not everybody’s story gets heard and gets the same level of seriousness.
“If you are a cisgender, straight, upper-caste woman, you are likely to be taken more seriously than a queer Dalit woman, even if you’re both survivors. That is what privilege is,” says Cynthia.
“It is important that those of us who are more privileged to be aware of it, and check it so that we don’t end up silencing voices that are disadvantaged or marginalised. In fact, you can use this privilege to make way and create opportunities for those who don’t have them,” she adds.
At the workplace, Chinmayi says, the men can use their male privilege to ensure that the employers have a gender-balanced workforce. “Check your male colleagues if they are making women uncomfortable,” she adds.
Cynthia says male bosses should not deny women employees job opportunities on the pretext or out of fear of being unfairly called out in a Me Too incident. “A good way to not be called out is to not harass women,” says Sandhya.
Making your workplace safer
As per the law, every organisation that has 10 employees or more has to have an Internal Committee to address complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace. The IC has to comprise a majority of women and must be headed by a senior woman staff member.
“There were times when people said, ‘No, we have no clue who’s on the IC. One male comes at the beginning of every year listing names, but we don’t go back unless there is some trouble to report’,” says Sandhya.
“You can also demand sexual harassment and gender sensitisation training at work so that everyone is aware of what counts as appropriate workplace behaviour,” says Chinmayi.
“And if your colleague approaches you with this information, don’t hesitate to take steps to help that person and raise it to the management. Support the survivor,” says Cynthia.