Indian conservation sector’s #MeToo points to a deep-rooted problem

Shailendra Singh (Image source:

Like many stories of its nature, this one begins anonymously on social media. On March 16, an unidentified person on Instagram’s Women of the Wild India handle posted allegations of a “history of sexual harassment” against Shailendra Singh, a top wildlife conservationist and the director of the Turtle Survival Alliance India (TSA India), a non-profit that works to conserve and protect wild tortoises and freshwater turtles under the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Like many stories of its nature, that first revelation paved the way for similar accusations against Singh by at least three other women who used their names.

Like many stories of its nature the complaints by multiple women go back several years signalling a culture of impunity and silence.

Within four days, the original post had gathered 302 comments and over 1,100 “likes”.

Others detailed a toxic, misogynist working environment with details of sexual harassment by Singh.

A wildlife conservationist wrote about her time as a 20-year-old volunteer in 2016 when the director molested her. Another volunteer, spoke of an incident at a new year’s eve party at the director’s house. And a third spoke of working at a remote facility where she literally had to beg for a toilet, was yelled at and abused in public until she went into depression and had to seek therapy.

Three days later on March 19, TSA’s chair of equity, diversity and inclusion, Heather Barrett finally responded: “We take this very seriously. We understand that there is a current investigation in India, compliant with Indian laws, and we await the results and will be prepared to take appropriate action.” It is not clear which of the complaints is under investigation.

On March 20, the National Commission for Women chairperson Rekha Sharma wrote to the Uttar Pradesh police to ensure a fair and time-bound investigation.

For now, Shailendra Singh has been removed as director of TSA, India

Cut off and isolated

“Women in wildlife conservation typically work in remote, isolated areas, in field conditions where toilets are not available, sometimes not even separate rooms, and it’s common for a woman to find herself in an all-male team,” writes independent environmental journalist Bahar Dutt in The News Minute.

[Read Bahar Dutt’s story here]

The allegations by at least four women against Singh reflect the first time the Indian wildlife conservation sector has been hit by MeToo accusations.

(Image source:

Women wildlife conservationists are most of the time “at the mercy of men”, Dutt told me on the phone. “Most of the time cell phones don’t work in remote forest areas and there is nobody they can call for help.”

Ever since the TSA India #MeToo story broke, Dutt says she has been besieged by messages by women sharing stories of abuse. TSA India could be just the tip of the iceberg, she says.

But shocking as these allegations are, the silence by TSA despite knowing about them since at least 2020 is inexplicable.

Dutt reports that Lonnie McCaskill, a TSA board member and advisor to TSA India, wrote in an August 2020 email: “I’ve tried on each occasion to follow up and tried to get this [sexual harassment allegations] addressed but to date have not succeeded in getting the attention I feel it warrants.”

So, why did it take an Instagram post in March 2023 for TSA to react and respond?

The answer perhaps lies in the culture of impunity that allows workplace sexual harassment to continue. Although organisations have scrambled to set up POSH (prevention of sexual harassment) committees that are mandated by law, the gap lies in intent.

Cracks between the law and reality

In 1997, the Supreme Court passed the landmark Vishakha judgement that for the first time issued “guidelines” around preventing sexual harassment. But, it said, it was Parliament’s job to enact an appropriate law.

It actually took 15 years for Parliament to enact that law which it did in 2013 in the wake of public protest against the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi.

(Image source:

Then in 2018, Indian actor Tanushree Pandey gave an interview to an entertainment channel where she spoke about a 10-year-old incident when she walked out of a film set after refusing to enact an intimate dance step with Nana Patekar. As she tried to leave, her car was surrounded by dozens of angry goons who threatened her and deflated her car tyres.

The old video of Pandey in her car being attacked quickly went viral and lit the spark of outrage as dozens of women came forward on social media with accounts of their own sexual harassment at work, often with screenshots of propositions and lewd messages by male colleagues and bosses.

Amongst those named was MJ Akbar, then a minister in the Narendra Modi government, who was named by at least 20 women. Akbar stepped down from his post and filed a criminal defamation case against one of his accusers, Priya Ramani who eventually won in a trial court. Akbar has filed an appeal against the verdict in the Delhi hight court.

[I wrote a chapter about India’s MeToo movement in Saurabh Kirpal’s book, Sex and Supreme Court]

A systemic problem

The accusations against TSA’s Shailendra Singh come as grim reminder of the heavy-lifting that remains.

All the women I have ever spoken to about workplace sexual harassment have one thing in common: They do not want to lose their jobs or mess up their careers. When they do speak up or complain, it is usually the last step, one that is taken simply because they want the harassment to stop.

I can think of three reasons why workplace sexual harassment continues despite the law.

The first is the imbalance of power between powerful male bosses and subordinate women employees. Women who complain can often face hostile work environments. Even when they quit, they are threatened with unfavourable reviews. “If you end on a bad note,” states the first complainant against Singh, “they make sure they bad-mouth you at each and every opportunity.”

Illustration by Prajna Ghosh | ThePrint

At the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai, a senior teacher accused of sexually harassing students was on March 19 given a clean chit by an internal committee headed by the director, reports The Print. Students and staff are under a gag order that prevents them from discussing the events of December 2022 after a former director published details of the abuse online. That post has since been deleted.

Second, is that by speaking up, women place themselves under the spotlight of public scrutiny: Why did she speak up? Why after so many years? What is her ulterior motive? Was she, perhaps, passed up for a promotion? It’s a trial that would daunt most, if not all.

And third is the knowledge that to pursue a legal course of action, it is the individual woman who must consider the cost and time of retaining a lawyer. There must be substantial proof of the harassment – something that often takes place behind closed doors. And she must have immense powers of patience and perseverance to navigate India’s notoriously tardy legal system.

“We need better support structures,” Dutt says. This would include more women in the field, more women in leadership positions, and better education of women on how they can protect themselves and of their rights in law.

And zero tolerance by organisations against predatory men.

In numbers

7,093 is the number of women personnel serving in the Indian army as on March 1. Of these, 6,993 serve in the Army Medical Corps, dental corps and military nursing service while 100 serve in other ranks.

Source: Minister of state for defence Ajay Bhatt

Names matter

Former Indian hockey captain Rani Rampal has become the first woman in the sport to have a stadium named after her. The MCF Rae Bareli Stadium is now the Rani Girls Hockey Turf.

All over the world, when stadiums are named for women, the choice tends to favour those in power or heads of state: Indira Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth II and even Eva Peron.

Of the 6,000-odd football stadiums around the world, just 10 are named after women. In 1981, Stadion Veldwij was renamed Fanny Blankers-Koen Stadion in honour of one of the Netherland’s most decorated and beloved Olympic athletes.

And, of course, there’s Show Court One in Melbourne, Australia that was renamed Margaret Court Arena as a tribute to Australia’s most successful woman tennis player. But the renaming in 2003 was not without controversy with Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe protesting because of Court’s opposition to LGBTQ rights

Love, “love jihad” and politicians

(Image Source: TOI)

Cutting across party lines, MLAs from the BJP and Congress in Gujarat have asked for the law to be tweaked so that couples who wish to have “love” marriages must first get the assent and signature of their parents.

“Marriages solemnised without the consent of parents add to the crime rate in the state,” BJP MLA Fatehsinh Chauhan said in the state assembly. If such marriages were registered with the consent of parents, the crime rate would come down by 50%, he claimed. Sadly, no data was presented to back his claim but that didn’t stop Congress MLA Geni Thakore from adding that an amendment in the law would “save the lives of thousands of girls”.

Elsewhere in Maharashtra, deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has called for new laws on inter-faith marriages alleging that there appeared to some sort of design behind “love jihad”. Women and child development minister Mangal Pratap Lodha had said on March 8 that there were 100,000 “love jihad” cases. In December, his ministry had set up a committee to probe interfaith marriages. But the commissioner of women and child development confirmed that not a single complaint has been received by the panel so far.

News you may have missed

Delhi’s rape horror

In separate incidents two children, one aged 10 and the other aged 11 were raped by a peon in a municipal school and a security guard in Delhi and Gurugram. The 10-year-old was reportedly lured away from school by the peon who sedated her and then raped her with three others. In Gurugram, the child was raped by the guard while on her way to her uncle’s house.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 97.1% of all reported cases of child sexual abuse in 2021 involved offenders known to the child.

Bilkis Bano to get her day in court

new Supreme Court bench comprising justices KM Joseph and BV Nagarathna, will hear on March 27 a clutch of petitions against the Gujarat government’s decision to grant remission to 11 people convicted and sentenced to a life term for gang-raping Bilkis Bano and murdering her family members during the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In November, Bilkis Bano had filed a plea in the apex court challenging the Gujarat government’s decision. A bench was set up to hear the matter but in December Justice Bela M Trivedi recused herself from it. Ever since, the case has been in limbo.

…And the good news

Calling it the “biggest cash transfer scheme implemented by any state government in the history on this country,” the DMK-led government in Tamil Nadu has launched a programme which will transfer 1,000 a month to women in eligible households. With a budget allocation of Rs 7,000 crore, the scheme will benefit as many as 5.8 million women in the state and will be launched on September 15, the birth anniversary of DMK founder CN Annadurai.

Field notes

An unspoken truth

When we talk about “domestic violence”, the inference most often is that “domestic” refers to women’s marital homes and the perpetrators of this violence are the husband and in-laws.

During the pandemic, surveys and research from various states established that the number of married women calling for help was unusually high. But at Shakti Shalini’s helpline and women’s shelter home in Delhi, an unexpectedly large number of single women who were facing violence at the hands of their birth family, or natal kin – parents, siblings, uncles – also reached out.

A new study of calls made between 2020 and 2021 to Shakti Shalini, a non-profit that has supported survivors of sexual and gender-based violence since 1987, documents that 45% of calls were by survivors who were unmarried and lived with their natal families. Another 10% were in live-in relationships.

“Given the imposition of nation-wide lockdowns and social distancing measures, these single women had no alternative safe space to turn to. They were locked in, 24 hours, in abusive environments. The government’s heavily publicised, pandemic-prevention public message – ‘stay home, stay safe’ – was not viable for them.”

Through in-depth interviews with 20 women, the report Unkahi (literally meaning the unspoken) finds that single women faced the same trauma as married women who were locked at home with their abusers, but a key difference is the social outlook and response towards the abuser: A woman who complains against her marital kin might still gain sympathy, but there is next to no public support for a woman who complains against her parents or natal kin.

Although the report talks about natal violence during the pandemic, the interviews paint a portrait of discrimination, parental policing, other restrictions and forms of violence that continue well beyond the pandemic.

Read the Shakti Shalini report here.

The long(ish) read

So much of what Mira Sethi writes about Pakistan’s, Aurat March, a defiant act of self-assertion with women chanting “mera jism, meri marzi” could be said about India: the universality of sexual harassment, the resistance and the utter panic this creates amongst the patriarchs.

Read her New Yorker piece here.


In London, an independent review commissioned after a young woman was raped and killed by a serving police officer in 2021, has found that London police has lost the confidence of the public because of its deep-seated racism, misogyny and homophobia, reports Reuters. With 34,000 officers, the city’s metropolitan police service is Britain’s biggest police force and must “change itself” or risk being broken up, the report published on Tuesday said.

In Uganda, where same-sex relations are already a crime, law makers have cleared a new “anti-gay” bill with enhanced punishments including the death penalty for anyone engaging in gay sex and 20 years in jail for merely identifying as gay. The bill follows “months of hostile rhetoric against sexual and gender minorities by public figures in Uganda, as well as government crackdowns on LGBT-rights groups,” Human Rights Watch says.

In California, senator Aisha Wahab has introduced a bill that would ban caste-discrimination. If passed, it would make the state the first in America to specifically ban it. Just weeks earlier Seattle became the first US city to ban caste-based bias. Read Dhrubo Jyoti’s report here.

In Somalia, as many as 43,000 people, half of them children under five, are estimated to have died amidst the country’s longest drought on record last year, according to a new report by the country’s ministry of health and human services, WHO and UNICEF.

Before I go, don’t forget to tune in to witness history tonight at the first-ever Women’s Premier League final between Mumbai Indians and Delhi Capitals at Brabourne Stadium. The WPL has been hailed as the most transformative competition ever seen in women’s cricket.

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Past their prime? Women actors of a certain age are having the time of their life

“And ladies,” she said accepting the Oscar for best actress “Don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up.”

Michelle Yeoh (Source: Getty images)

Michelle Yeoh, who will be 61 in August, had reason to celebrate many firsts. The first Asian to win an Oscar. Only the second woman of colour after Halle Berry in 2002, to take home the prize.

Dressed in white, which also happens to be the colour of the suffragettes, Yeoh did reference “all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight” before she delivered her knockout punch.

Yeoh has been bothered, and candid, in the past about the ageism that plagues her industry where the average age of best actress winners in the past century has been 37, reports The Insider. At the Golden Globes (where she also picked up best actress) she spoke about how discouraging it was to grow older in the industry: “As the days, years, numbers get bigger, the opportunities get smaller.”

Female characters anyway tend to be younger than their male counterparts, with their age diminishing in “alarming numbers” around the age of 40, found the report, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World. In 2022, women aged 40 and above found place in only 14% of movie roles.

That’s not about to change any time soon, but a quick look at recent Oscar winners is instructive: Frances McDormand won in 2018 and 2021 at 60 and 63. Olivia Colman was 45 at her 2019 win, Renee Zellweger 50 in 2020 and Jessica Chastain 44 last year.

[Read in NPR Michelle Yeoh called out sexism in Hollywood. Will it help close the gender gap?]

Their moment in the sun

In Everything Everywhere all at Once, Yeoh plays a middle-aged Chinese-American immigrant, trying to make her laundromat business, her marriage and her family work. To make matters worse, she must also face the world’s worst tax auditor, played brilliantly by Jamie Lee Curtis, 64 who picked up best supporting actress. Obviously.

Two women nominees who lost out include Angela Bassett and Cate Blanchett who are 64 and 53. Jennifer Coolidge who won outstanding performance by a female actor for her role in White Lotus earlier at the Screen Actors Guild award in February is 61.

What happens in Hollywood rarely stays in Hollywood. Accepting the Oscar for best documentary short, producer Guneet Monga pointed out that she and director Kartiki Gonsalves “were the only two women representing India…this is historic and a message for my fellow women”.

Sharmila Tagore’s return to cinema on March 3 with Gulmohar where she plays the role of the family matriarch who must deal with a bullying and out-of-date brother-in-law is tailor-made for her. A new generation of script writers, says film scholar Shohini Ghosh is using “women of all ages in all possible ways”.

In Pathaan, Dimple Kapadia plays a pivotal role as Shah Rukh Khan’s boss (though it must be said that at just eight years older, the casting does raise questions about ageism).

[Read the Bollywood Gender Age Gap here]

But it’s not just the playing of mom roles. “It’s the way women of a certain age are finding a range of creative expression that is most exciting,” says critic Pragya Tiwari. For instance, she points out, Neena Gupta’s spectacular second coming includes film roles, a TV series, an autobiography and becoming a fashion icon for her daughter Masaba’s brand. “She’s a full-on fashion icon with her daughter naming a blouse style, the Neenaji blouse, after her. All the young girls are wearing it,” says Tiwari.

New mediums

The growth of OTT platforms that provide the space for new content, new scripts and new avenues of creativity has certainly helped.

A Nekkei Asia data analysis of 1,200 Bollywood films over the past decades shows an upward trend in movies driven by women in the lead cast from one in 10 in the early 2000s to one in four today. The share of these movies on streaming platforms including Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Hotstar has shown a similar trend from just a trickle in 2018 to accounting for over half in 2022.

The expanded share is reflected in newer roles for such actors as Madhuri Dixit who made her acting debut in 1984 with Abodh and now continues to find meaty roles with the 2022 Netflix series The Fame Game. “It’s not just the OTT platforms that are providing new avenues of creativity but also social media where women can express themselves,” says film-maker Vinta Nanda whose new film Shout deals with gender-based violence.

Zeenat Aman at Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai. (Source: PTI)

At 71, Zeenat Aman has made a smashing comeback on Instagram decades after retiring from films. Since her Insta debut on February 11, she has amassed 138,000 followers with her latest post, walking the ramp for designer Shahin Mannan at the Lakme Fashion Week.

Another post of Aman reading Derek Walcott’s Love after Love at her son Zahaan Khan’s recording studio received over 18,100 likes.

In a break from the political correctness that characterizes much of the film industry, Aman has spoken about gender pay parity (“so vast it was laughable”), the male gaze and the difference of being photographed by a woman and ageing. “As women we are told that our social worth lies in youth and physical beauty…as we age, men are bequeathed gravitas but women are at best offered sympathy.”

Ageism in general is not a movie problem as much as it is a social problem, points out Shohini Ghosh. “We live in a society that valourises youth and this is what is reflected in our cinema,” she says. So whether it is inequities of payment or the gender age gap, cinema won’t change until society changes.

In numbers

Only 18% of women in India have a say in how the money they earn on jobs is spent. While 67% overall said decisions on spending their money is made jointly with a spouse, 15% had absolutely no say in how their earnings were spent.

Source: National Family Health Survey data analysed by Mint.

Going places

Dhanya Rajendran (Source: thenewsminute)

Dhanya Rajendran, co-founder and editor-in-chief of news website The News Minute has been awarded the Chameli Devi Jain outstanding women media-person of 2022. “Rajendran’s reportage is an outstanding example of how good journalism can impact democracy,” Harish Khare, chair of the Media Foundation that administers the award said. The News Minute is credited with redefining news coverage from South India with Rajendran as the “curator of the country’s most diverse newsroom by way of caste, religion, gender, sexuality,” tweeted Sudipto Mondal, News Minute’s executive editor.

Seen and heard

“Shakha is an activity of men…male members have assemblies in early morning or late evening and participate in various activities.”

RSS general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale conceded that his organisation needed to engage with women but said they were limitations on they how much they can travel and so their work was accordingly structured.

Can’t make this up

“The father finds out, gets angry and beats up Kezia…At night, Kezia realises that her father works too hard to be playing with her and that explains him [sic] getting angry frequently. She forgives him and sleeps happily.”

The Delhi Commission for Child Protection Rights has been writing to NCERT since November 2022 about a problematic chapter in a class 9 text book, its chairperson Anurag Kundu told the Times of India. With a new academic session set to start in April, the chapter, which normalises and even justifies physical abuse, remains.

News you may have missed

The fight for marriage equality

(Image Source: Book cover of Ruth Vanita’s book ‘Love’s Rights’)

The central government has made clear its opposition to same-sex marriage, a stance that is backed by the RSS. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a batch of petitions demanding marriage rights for the LGBTQ community on April 18. Solicitor general Tushar Mehta through an affidavit filed in the apex court has said that extending marriage rights to the community will cause “havoc” but the petitioners say marriage confers substantive rights including adoption and inheritance that cannot be denied to them under the Constitution

Legal glossary to excise sexist terms from judgements

A committee chaired by Calcutta high court judge Moushumi Bhattacharya and including former high court judges Gita Mittal and Prabha Sridevan as well as professor Jhuma Sen are working on a legal glossary to stop the use of gendered language and terms by judges. Judgements are replete with words such as “concubine” and “thieves” to describe women who seek to quash FIRs in domestic violence cases.

…And the good news

Protagonists Bellie and Bommon of the Oscar-winning documentary The Elephant Whisperers were felicitated by Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin who presented them with a cheque of Rs 100,000 each and announced a similar award for 91 workers at the state’s two elephant camps at Mudumalai and Annamalai. The CM also announced financial assistance of Rs 9.1 crore to build houses for mahouts and their assistants and another Rs 5 crore to upgrade the camp at Annamalai.

Field notes

Hormonal contraceptive pills for women have been around since the 1960s and gave women the freedom to choose when they want (and if they want) to get pregnant. Now over half a century later, scientists are experimenting with male contraceptives that include pills, gels and implants that would allow men to share contraceptive responsibility. Many are more convenient and fool proof than condoms or easily reversed than vasectomies.

Read more about the brave new frontier of male contraception in National Geographic here.


In Texas, a man who says his ex-wife used an abortion pill without his knowledge is suing three women who he claims helped her, invoking the state’s wrongful death act in what may be the first case of its kind, reports Blmoomberg.

In Japan, as companies offer their heftiest wage raises in decades, women in the world’s third-largest economy are hoping that it won’t take as long to close the vast gender gap in pay with women making only around 78% of what men do. Read more in Reuters here.

In Berlin, city authorities have said that women are legally permitted to swim topless in swimming pools. The announcement comes after a 33-year-old woman filed a discrimination complaint against a pool that barred her entry because she was topless.

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Marriage equality: Be on the right side of history

There’s a unique opportunity for the five-judge bench that will start hearing arguments on same-sex marriage from April 18. What it will decide will send a signal to India and the world

What is the havoc that solicitor-general Tushar Mehta fears? If personal religious laws don’t recognize same-sex marriage, then there’s the Secular Special Marriage Act of 1954 that allows interfaith couples to marry. A government that talks of a common civil code can easily extend this common law to sexual minorities. It’s hard to imagine that Armageddon will be unleashed by extending marriage rights. (HT PHOTO)

The lines for the battle for marriage equality have been drawn. The central government through its affidavit is clear: Granting legal recognition to marriage within the LGBTQ community will cause “havoc” with the balance of the country’s personal laws, societal values, and legislative policy that recognizes marriage as a bond only between biological men and biological women. For the 15 petitioners, who await a verdict, the issue is simple. The Constitution guarantees equality to all. In 2018, when Section 377 criminalizing sex “against the order of nature” was scrapped, the logical end was marriage rights. These are rights based on common sense. In addition to social validation, marriage confers substantial rights on married couples, from taxation and adoption to inheritance, that are denied at present to same-sex couples.