The Minister of Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, has announced that she is constituting a committee of four retired judges to conduct public hearings of the recent #MeToo complaints in the media by several women in India. The aim is to provide “swift” justice to the survivors. The Minister has said, “”But I know when your body is abused, you remember it always ..”
We definitely need an institutional response to deal with the #MeToo complaints and provide closure for the many women who have courageously come forward to break the silence on sexual violence.
For too long, sexual violence has been a pandemic impacting women’s independence, self esteem, mental health, economic opportunities and basic human rights.
I am pleased that the Minister has weighed in and wants to take concrete steps to address it. I also endorse her request to the Law Ministry to allow women to put forward their complaints without time limits. But in the interest of long term change and a sustainable response, I would like to offer some suggestions to strengthen her efforts.
- Do not create new and parallel mechanisms for justice. Instead strengthen existing ones be it the Police, The POSH Act, the National Commission for Women, Emergency Helplines and Crisis Centres.
- Currently under the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, women who experience sexual harassment at work (both formal and informal labour) have the right to make the complaint to the Investigation Committee (IC) at their workplace or the District Authority. So why not ensure this is complied with? Find out how many Districts, Corporations and Institutions have functioning ICs.
- Conduct an audit of institutions and organisations on compliance, trainings for ICs and organisation culture that promotes reporting. Many of the #MeToo stories have identified organisation culture to be abusive and problematic.
- Penalise organisations and institutions that have not complied with the POSH Act. The responsibility should be theirs and not on the survivors of sexual violence to fight for justice.
- Empower the National Commission for Women (NCW) and its state bodies to provide adequate safeguards for women under the Constitution and other laws. They should be the ones taking up cases of the #MeToo movement and supporting the survivors.
- Women who have a complaint must be encouraged to make a formal complaint to the NCW irrespective of the time period. The NCW can then instruct the industry body and /or the institution to take up the case, conduct the investigation and forward the findings.
- Create, build and maintain functioning One Stop Crisis Centres in every city and state in India. At the moment, one cannot even find a list of the centres currently in existence in India. These are critical in providing physical treatment and socio-psychological support for survivors of sexual violence and other forms of violence. The staff should be well trained to deal with these cases and the survivor should only have to record her story once without having to relive her experience over and over again.
- Ensure Helplines are responsive and sensitive to the needs of survivors. We should have only one national number 1091 as it is difficult to remember different numbers.
- Use the Nirbhaya fund to create resources for women and survivors to use. Currently the allocation of INR 1000 crores is lying un-utilised.
- Finally, make sexual violence prevention a priority item. India is earning a bad reputation globally and it is in India’s interests to find sustainable solutions that are not merely marketing optics. There is an invisible cost of a bad reputation which affects trade and tourism and we need to provide confidence to women in India and abroad that India is a safe place for women.