BY BRP BHASKAR
FOR a state which boasts of remarkable social advancement, Kerala suffers from some serious problems.
The surest indication of this is the rising number of cases of sexual harassment. Almost invariably the Establishment finds itself on the wrong side in such cases.
The Supreme Court, while disposing of a case from Rajasthan in 1997, felt that the absence of specific legal provisions to deal with instances of sexual harassment at the workplace was a lacuna that needed to be remedied.
It laid down detailed guidelines to deal with such complaints.
The apex court directed that committees headed by women be set up in all offices to deal with complaints of sexual harassment.
It specifically stated that the committees must include representatives of non-government organisations.
Both the governments and the private employers were slow in responding to the directive.
When they set up committees they were often ineffective.
A study by the People's Union for Civil Liberties, a leading national human rights organisation, a few years later showed that the committees were not functioning the way the court expected.
Writing in the PUCL Bulletin, D. Nagasaila and V. Suresh said, committee members including NGO representatives sometimes embarrassed the complainants with questions and statements such as "Why do you prefer these complaints? As a woman you must learn to adjust and not complain. No other woman around you is complaining, so why are you doing it? You are overreacting and being hypersensitive. It is better for your career to withdraw this complaint."
One would have thought things would be different in Kerala with its unique social record. But from time to time evidence surfaces which shows that on gender issues the State is no better than the rest.
The latest instance comes from the Kerala State Public Services Commission, which has let off a senior official, who had attracted sexual harassment charge, with a mere censure.
He was due to retire from service this month and a severe punishment may have meant his having to quit in disgrace.
The charge against the official, Abu Saly, was that he had made an obscene remark to a woman employee. Geedha, another employee, objected to it and encouraged her colleague to file a complaint.
The employees' organisation rushed to the official's aid and Geedha was subjected to harassment and threats. The organisation arranged a formal send-off for Saly at the PSC office on Saturday, his last working day.
Human rights activists joined Geedha in a protest outside the office, which took the form of a symbolic "public trial."
Maithree Prasad, of the Forum against Harassment of Women and Workplace, said it was deplorable that the PSC should attempt to protect an official the charge against whom had been proved.
She pointed out that Geedha had been subjected to intimidation in the office since she raised the issue of sexual harassment in 2005.
A formal decision on the complaint was delayed until a few days before the official's retirement with a view to helping him to escape just punishment. She criticised the employees' organisation for the scant regard it showed to the dignity of woman employees.
Geedha's case parallels that of PE Usha, an employee of the Calicut University, who had lodged a complaint with the police alleging that she had been subjected to sexual harassment by a fellow-passenger while travelling by bus. The police did not move until strong public demand forced it to act.
The offender was subsequently convicted by a magistrate and sentenced to two years' rigorous imprisonment.
The CPI-M-led university employees' organisation used the occasion to settle scores with Usha, who was associated with a rival organisation.
It carried on a vilification campaign against her inside the campus, making it difficult for her to work there. She later took up another assignment on deputation.
Often, there is marked sympathy among the authorities for the offender in sexual harassment cases. This can be explained in terms of the male domination in the Establishment.
The Left movement, too, is not free from gender prejudices.
What is more, unions under its control are willing to go to any lengths to denigrate women who toe an independent line.
Both Usha and Geedha have been associated with movements which the CPI-M considers inimical to its interests.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 1, 2008.