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India

‘If a woman doesn’t have proof, there are other clues’

Sonal Mattoo , a lawyer and founder of voluntary organisation Helping Hands, has been part of the internal committees on sexual harassment of many organisations, ranging from media to hospitality sectors. As the MeToo India movement gets more women to speak up, she talks to Ambika Pandit about the challenges these committees face

The MeToo movement has exposed the ubiquity of sexual harassment. But in most cases, survivors don’t even approach the prevention of sexual harassment committee…


What we are getting in terms of cases is like a drop in the ocean. Most shy away from reporting; this is more common among entry-level employees. The common reason is fear of victimisation at the workplace and the social stigma attached to such matters. That is where the role of the organisation comes into play. They have to ensure the staff feels comfortable and confident about reporting sexual harassment.

Don’t most managers try to “settle” the issue themselves rather than sending it to the internal committee (IC)?


Yes, they do though it is not the best way to resolve the problem. Normally a survivor will reach out to the person he or she reports to. However, experience shows that this often does not work, and the perpetrator returns to his old ways when he sees no action was taken in the first instance. So, managers must refer the matter to the IC as it has a well laid-out process to record, document and proceed on cases. We have seen that when a complaint comes about a person, we hear the same things about him from different people during the investigation. This reflects a behavioural pattern.

What is the burden of proof on the survivor — if there are no text/WhatsApp messages or video footage, what does a survivor do?


It is important that the person facing discomfort because of someone’s behaviour must report the matter even if there is no record of communication. The investigation begins based on the perception of the complainant. For instance, if a woman felt the gaze of a male employee disturbing she may dismiss it the first time, but the next time she will take note and take some steps like not being around him alone in a conference room or share her discomfort with someone around her. The IC investigation looks for these clues to reach a conclusion. Lack of evidence should not deter a person from reporting the matter.

The MeToo movement has brought to the fore complaints that date back several years. What happens in such cases?

While there is a limitation period of 3-6 months for reporting cases to the internal committee, companies are taking note under their code of conduct rules. The code covers professional behaviour, hence older matters can be taken up even if they do not come within the timeframe set out by the law.

The lines between office and personal life is increasingly getting blurred. Are there an increasing number of cases where harassment has happened outside the office?

We do get a lot more cases now where harassment happened outside the workplace, usually at parties. We get cases where the situations that are perceived as sexual harassment arose in an inebriated condition, and later the woman realised that what happened was not out of her consent. Employees have to understand that even if harassment happens outside the office at a private gathering, since it is between two colleagues the matter can reach the IC and will be heard on merit.

Disclosure: Mattoo serves on BCCL’s IC as an independent member
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