AT 24, Shylaja Praveen’s life was ahead of her — an untrammeled space to be explored, full of possibilities and promise. That’s not quite how it turned out though. Shylaja committed suicide last month, allegedly driven to despair by continual sexual harassment by the regional head of ING Vysya Financial Services in Bangalore where she worked.
This is not the first case of this kind. In June 2000, Sangeeta Sharma, an advocate in the Andhra Pradesh High Court killed herself after leaving a suicide note containing allegations of sexual harassment by fellow lawyers and senior advocates. Sangeeta did not want to name her harassers because she feared repercussions for herself and her child. Shylaja tried multiple routes to justice in vain, including and up to approaching the State Women’s Commission. Both had probably reached some nadir of hopelessness where they felt the only way out was death.
These were not weak women. They had explored their options. In Shylaja’s case, she had even asked her superiors for help as recommended by Pramila Nesargi, Director of Karnataka Women’s Commission. She must have patiently recounted her story again and again, risking humiliation and further victimization. This was no wilting flower.
Suicide and depression share a close bond and internationally, various studies have established a clear link between sexual harassment in the workplace and severe psychological trauma. According to the Fourth European Working Conditions Survey:
The proportion of workers reporting symptoms of psychosocial factors, such as sleeping problems, anxiety and irritability, is nearly four times greater among those who have experienced violence or bullying and harassment as among those who have not. The negative impacts are not exclusively psychological or mental, however. It is also the case that a higher incidence of physiological symptoms, notably stomach ache, is reported by those subjected to bullying and harassment.
So it’s not hard to see how continually dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace can, in some cases, lead to suicide. What is more disturbing is that in India, we have a socio-cultural ethos that actively encourages women to be soft, submissive and, above all, silent. Take a look at how the Deccan Herald reported the story. The first paragraph said:
She used to lead the retail and corporate team in her bank and was known for her knack for communicating well in her profession. But ironically, she failed to take charge of her own life, and unable to cope with the alleged harassment from her boss, ended it on Friday evening.
Instead of focusing on the sexual harassment (they haven’t even used the term), there is a condescending statement on Shylaja’s inability to handle her own life. Because women are expected to take these things in their stride, ignore it, smile in the fact of it. Suck it up, baby. After all, it gets much worse. And if you give in and break, it’s your own fault for failing to “take charge” of your own life. Meanwhile, the culpable one cocks a snook at the cops and retreats into hiding. Immediately after the suicide, Bharath, the sexual offender who was also regional head at the bank, was absconding. Later reports said that no comprehensive evidence had been found. Why doesn’t this surprise me?
Then, take a look at how Pramila Nesargi, Chairperson, Karnataka Women’s Commission, helped her ‘fight’ this battle. She advised her to ‘talk to her superiors’. Later, she said: “Unfortunately, they were not very helpful. One of her bosses said he would help her find another job after directing her to save the messages sent by Bharath.”
Is that the best Ms Nesargi could do? The most effective plan she could craft as an ‘expert’? Where was the contingency plan? What was the backup option? What was the recommended Plan B? When the superiors were not helpful, why didn’t she immediately ask Shylaja to file a complaint, to demand that an Enquiry Committee be set up? When Nesargi was aware that the company did not even have a sexual harassment policy in place, on what basis did she trust (and therefore ask the girl to trust) her superiors for a solution? Why didn’t she encourage her to take a hard line on this?
Let’s not kid around. When you’re fighting something like sexual harassment, you cannot also play ‘nice girl’. The problem is that, inevitably, others expect you to. Even the women. Sometimes, especially the women. No matter what a woman is being forced to deal with, she must maintain the veneer of politeness, of delicacy, of being a ‘good woman’. And good women don’t get aggro.
Expecting women to continually seek the most ‘peaceful’ solutions, to compromise rather than confront, to negotiate rather than demand is a form of repression. It forces women to put up with more than they need to, stick in there longer than they have to. It forces them to continually settle for second best, for less than they deserve. And when the peaceable methods don’t work (because, let’s face it, they often don’t), this expectation makes them feel trapped. Because nobody ever tells them that fighting is an option — sometimes, the best option.
While fighting sexual harassment in my previous job, aggression is what got me through. Well-planned, deliberate aggression. Every time the company came back with a carrot, a compromise, or a cock-and-bull story, I went back with long emails on what was wrong with it and how it had pissed me off even further. I was angry. And I showed it, acted on it, practically lived on it for three months. Things may have turned out differently if Shylaja had felt that way. If she had felt anger instead of despair. If somebody had helped her marshal her mental forces and told her she can ‘fight’. Not ask, plead, negotiate, request or supplicate, but fight. If they had looked her in the eyes, shaken her by the shoulders, and said: ‘Get the bastard and I’ll help you’.
She may have felt less helpless. She may have felt like she had a choice.
The tragedy is that Shylaja actually approached the State Women’s Commission and tried to access the relevant support mechanisms. Few women would have had the courage to do this. But the commission failed to provide her with options or bolster her confidence. Shylaja’s descent into despair is not just another unhappy accident. It is the product of a culture that traps women into choiceless living. And worse, it is a failure of the women’s rights mechanism in the state.