India is no stranger to the harassment of women, but the work arena has been relatively safe so far. Not any more, if recent reports are to be believed. In a disturbing post which details the systemic misogyny and harassment she faced while with the company, Riya Gupta (name changed), a former Greenpeace India employee, has alleged that she was raped by a colleague while she lay unconscious after a party.
Riya says that the incident occurred in 2013, and the perpetrator was someone she knew well. She’d initially hesitated to approach HR, but worked up the courage after she quit. Her complaint was bluntly rejected, claiming that that no action could be taken against an existing employee based on the allegations made by an ex-employee, and it didn’t matter if she had been an employee at the time of the incident.
The rape was only a culmination of the harassment she’d faced at the company. While on a field trip in 2012, a senior male colleague, who was in charge of making the room bookings, had drunkenly called her one night and kept insisting her to vacate her room and move to his. “He approached me physically despite my obvious discomfort, followed me around, insisted on force feeding me my birthday cake and sat next to me at breakfast when there were multiple other seats empty. At times, two of my male colleagues had to physically place themselves between the two of us to stop him from coming on to me.”, says Reetika.
Her complaints were brushed aside by her peers, male and female alike. “Female colleagues made me feel that it was all my fault, that people bullied me because I let them, that I didn’t know how to “set boundaries”.” Sexist comments were commonplace at Greenpeace. She once overheard a female employee being told that she’s ‘hysterical’ because she’s ‘menopausal’. Senior employees joked about her ‘character’ during official meetings, asking, “Who’s in her room today?” or “Is that person in her room, or in her?” When she did well in her fundraising efforts, she was told “..it’s easy for you, you just have to smile and the supporter would cut off a hefty cheque.”
She finally worked up the courage to file a complaint against the colleague who’d invited her into his room, but Greenpeace chose to not respond – for two long years. There was simply no follow up, verbal or written. The 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act clearly instructs that an Internal Complaints Committee be created in such cases to carry out an internal investigation and gather evidence. None of this happened. All Sonam got from her former employer was an email from the employee in February 2015.
“I feel, I owe you a personal apology for my insensitive behaviour towards you. You have been a wonderful colleague and friend, and I would not intentionally hurt your feelings. Please accept my apology. I hope you will be able to forgive me. I respect you and your abilities, and I hope we can continue to work well together and be good friends.”
Riya says she never reported the rape to the police, given the response she’d received regarding her previous complaint. The rape had affected her profoundly. “Going back to office was the most difficult thing. I had to face all the silent stares and smirks my rapist gave me on our work floor. I had to sit next to him and work along with him.“, she says. “I was constantly stressed. I developed low self-esteem. I spent one year in denial, trying to forget the memory of those hands accessing my body without my permission, and the pain of my resultant injuries that lasted two weeks. My previous incidents in the organization had broken me down to an extent that even the thought of approaching a hospital to treat my injuries was far from my mind.”
But in February this year, Riya took to Facebook to share her story, and this made Greenpeace come up with an apology. The apology states that Greenpeace regretted the way the incident was handled, but could do little else as the concerned employee had already left the company a year prior.
Riya came out publicly to raise awareness about the lax sexual harassment management systems at Indian companies, and to encourage other victims to speak out. “I’m fearless now. I’m stronger now. I know I’m not the only one, and I fight this not just for myself, but for the right of all women to live free from harassment, especially in civil society.“