Justice Sujata Manohar: ‘MeToo is a Protest Movement, Doesn’t Always Lead to Action’

One of three Supreme Court judges to pass the path-breaking Vishaka guidelines on workplace sexual harassment, Justice Sujata Manohar spoke to me about India’s MeToo movement and its larger implications.   

Before the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of April 2013, there were the Vishaka guidelines passed by the Supreme Court in August 1997. Vishaka not only defined sexual harassment for the first time, but also included a broad sweep of offences from outright sexual assault to sexually loaded comments made in the presence of a woman employee. Relying on multilateral and international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the UN in 1979, it placed responsibility on employers to prevent or deter sexual harassment and set up processes to deal with and resolve complaints.

Vishaka acknowledged women as equal citizens in the workplace with equal rights to employment and opportunity. “The fundamental right to carry on any occupation, trade or profession depends on the availability of a ‘safe’ working environment. Right to life means life with dignity,” noted the three-judge bench of Justice Sujata V Manohar, Justice BN Kirpal and the late Justice JS Verma who would subsequently go on to head a committee suggesting legal changes and reforms in the aftermath of the gang-rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012.

In the light of India’s MeToo movement, nearly 22 years after Vishaka and six years after the law on workplace sexual harassment, what are some of the core issues that remain? Is the law working or is it adequate to address the continuing malaise? Justice Sujata V Manohar, the second woman judge after Justice Fathima Beevi to be elevated to the Supreme Court, spoke to IndiaSpend:

India has, in recent months, seen its own MeToo movement where women are naming men who molested or raped them on social media. How do you view this trend?

MeToo is a social movement. It is not a legal movement. It shows that now it is at least possible for women to complain of what they could not in the past because of social pressure and stigma. To that extent it is a sign of empowerment. That’s one way of looking at it. The second aspect is to see it as an attempt on the part of women who have in the past been harassed by men in positions of power to shame them and possibly have some action taken against them.

But, whichever way you look at it, it is not a legal movement and it does not lead necessarily to any action against the man. The idea is ultimately to see that some action is taken, whatever is available under the law.

MeToo has its limitations. A woman can be harassed by someone on the street, for instance, not necessarily by a person with whom she is working. So, it is not an answer to anything. It is only a method of protest against exploitation.

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The long march to justice

The world’s longest and largest march by survivors of rape and sexual assault covering 24 states over 10,000 km in India seeks to break the silence and stigma around rape. My Hindustan Times  column. 

Y’s husband beat her senseless when he found out that she had been raped by three men in the fields where she had been working. Then he threw her out of the house and told her to go back to her parents. “I had done nothing wrong. I was just trying to earn a living,” she says.

When M managed to escape from three male captors, who told her they had bought her for Rs 2 lakh, her family barred her from seeing her kids. That was in 2016.

Just two out of an estimated 15,000 women and men who have taken part in what is perhaps the world’s largest and longest march of rape survivors, Y and M are finally at the end of a two-month, 10,000 km journey covering 200 districts in 24 states. Along the way, they have met police, judges, doctors, administrators, students, lawyers, teachers. They want to change the way you see them. They want to end the silence that continues to shroud survivors of sexual assault.

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What made India’s #MeToo possible

In Foreign Policy, I write on workplace sexual harassment from Bhanwari Devi to the resignation of M.J. Akbar, what’s changed over the years and which way India’s  #MeToo movement is likely to go. 

For close to two weeks now, many of India’s women, particularly in the English-language media and entertainment businesses, have taken to social media to call out sexual predators: bosses who had demanded sexual favors, men who had sent unsolicited explicit photographs, and stars who had interacted inappropriately with underage fans. Among those caught up in the torrent of accusations have been editors, directors, actors, writers, stand-up comedians, an image consultant, and a minister in the current government.

In some ways, the groundwork for this movement was laid in the 1990s. Early that decade, the state government of Rajasthan hired Bhanwari Devi, a social activist, to join an ongoing campaign against child marriage. Some locals, however, were not happy. In 1992, as “punishment” for her vocal condemnation of the marriage of a 9-month-old girl to a child from the same village, Devi says that she was raped by two men while three others held her down. The men denied the charges.

When the case came up for trial in a lower court in 1995, a judge ruled that “since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a Brahmin, the rape could not have taken place.” Devi, you see, was from a lower caste. The judge’s implication was that no upper caste man would “defile” himself by touching a lower-caste woman.

Weeks of marches and protests followed. And soon, a group of nonprofits came together under the name Vishakha. They petitioned the Supreme Court to create a legal framework for justice for women who had been sexually assaulted in the course of their work. In 1997, India’s highest court set specific guidelines that, for the first time, defined sexual harassment. The definition included not just physical contact but also sexually loaded remarks and comments.

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