All the media time and reams of newsprint documenting the various #MeToo revelations in India will not make up for the decades of silence imposed upon women and girls who were subject to sexual harassment at home, at work and in educational institutions.
Civil society groups have been at the forefront of social change in the area of gender and NGOs have been important stakeholders. Needless to say, there have been black sheep in the NGO sector as well, just as there are in the rest of society. Mari Marcel Thekaekara accused one well-known NGO activist in an article.
Even though I cannot claim that I was at the receiving end of sexual harassment, I can surely say that I paid a heavy personal price for speaking up against sexist and misogynist behaviour in some of the places I worked. Also, one needs to see this in the light of the subtle and not-so-subtle casteism one encounters in the sector.
As NGO work shed its focus on volunteerism and began to acquire “professionalism” in the wake of globalisation in the 1990s, there was an influx of foreign funding agencies which increased the need for professional social workers whose curricula needed project and financial management skills more than people’s issues, development and policy analysis, which used to be the forte of social workers during the 70s and 80s.
I joined the sector as a communications person in the 80s, during an exciting period. But much of this euphoria was because of my innocence – or ignorance, as it could be called. Over the years, I became experienced and of course moved up the ladder, a little slowed down by motherhood, which happened at a critical time career-wise, and by other personal setbacks.
So when, in 2004, I successfully passed an interview and written test for my first post as a director in an NGO, I was thrilled and excited by the challenging work and its scope, ideal for me, a multi-tasker and polymath. It was also the first job I had been able to land which was in line with my training, experience and skills. I often wondered at this, because peers who entered the field around the same time as I, with less training and capacities, had become directors much before me and drew double or triple of my salary. I had often attended interviews for senior positions and was shortlisted, but almost always found someone else being preferred.
I thought that this could be due to prejudice due to colour (I’m quite dark-complexioned), or religion – my name says it all – or even because I was South Indian – most NGO national offices are located in New Delhi. I’ve lived and worked there and can speak very fluent Hindi, travelled all over India, but still… it took sometime for me to realise that it wasn’t just colour, language or religion that was responsible for being overlooked for senior positions in NGOs. It was something that I hadn’t known about myself. I had Dalit ancestry.
Somehow, people in the sector – correctly – gauged that I was of Dalit stock. Therefore, my excellent writing, speaking and management skills were less important than the fact that maybe two or three generations ago, my forebears were probably “untouchables”, engaged in (maybe) unclean occupations and the hint of that taint was enough to keep me from being selected for any position of leadership or decision-making.
Suffice it to say that the reason I got my first post as a director was probably because I was a Dalit. The NGO was expected by the funders to show that it had programme staff from the target groups to execute the work.
Eventually, this assignment turned out to be very brief. Just ten months later, I lost the job despite excelling at it and having a good working relationship with the team and staff.
I was summarily terminated in the space of a day for asking the president of the board to tell the executive director of the organisation to stop having affairs with junior women staff during office time and in office space.
He failed to do his duty and instead took the side of the director. This board member now heads a national level organisation. (I fought a case in a labour court against my dismissal for several years and failed to win. I have still not got any of the money from my provident fund account because the executive director vindictively hasn’t signed and forward my application.)
The executive director continued, with his compliant board members and international funders, to run the NGO for several years, and provided an ecosystem for more women to be exploited, not only by him but by other board members and senior male staff. It gives me no joy to report that eventually, his alcohol abuse and financial profligacy caught up with him and funders withdrew after much damage was done.
The groupings withing NGOs
If just some women in male-headed NGOs speak up about their experiences, we’d have another long list of serial abusers who take advantage of the power their capacity to raise funds gives them over their staff. In fact, it is one of the reasons for civil society groups in Tamil Nadu to be clustered into two camps – one which includes NGOs headed by males and another made up of NGOs headed by women as well as autonomous women’s groups. Though there is issue-based solidarity among these camps, the NGO grouping in TN is almost exclusively based on gender.
The other divide is caste. Dalits have their own groups, the majority of them headed by men, many of them church-funded. Though there are several small poorly resourced ones headed by Dalit women, those which receive substantial foreign funding are headed by men and women from the privileged castes. (I am not comfortable using the term savarna even though it has become common these days, since I believe that as it refers to the varna, or caste, and means “with caste” – as opposed to avarna – or caste-less untouchables, and it reifies, reinforces and even legitimises caste hierarchies. This is my personal opinion.)
Be that as it may, the reality of the privileged castes dominating the leadership and decision making powers in NGOs with the field workers almost invariably made up of Dalits, Adivasis and some of the less resourced backward classes, only reflects the larger societal realities. Even though lip service used to be paid to empowering women or Dalits and especially Dalit women, the fact was – and is – that their positions in NGOs and movements continue to be marginalised and disempowered, even exploitative.
I say this with full responsibility. Even in many organisations led by Dalit women, there are hierarchies based on other considerations like kinship, language and region, though their solidarity does transcend these divisions in the larger picture.
One of the issues that #MeToo has raised is whether, if at all, Dalit women are part of the campaign, and whether Dalit women were reluctant to name their oppressors, and if so, why. We found that the percentage of convictions of those accused of harassing Dalit women is abysmal, since, as researchers found, police refused to file cases if Dalit women tried to complain against their tormentors. The police did not believe the women.
I shared my story on Facebook recently and the response was unexpectedly supportive and warm. Many of my friends knew the identity of the people involved and several asked me to name the persons. I refused because it might bring harm to many women who worked there but were not targets. Also the executive director’s fall from grace is complete and there’s nothing more pathetic than a discredited patriarch. I can’t bring myself to kick someone when they are down.
I seriously considered naming the board president, the man who failed to do his job and is enjoying the consequences of that sycophancy, who chose male solidarity and love for money and position and threw me under the bus. Not just him, but the whole craven bunch of so-called board members. This person is in a position of leadership at a national level organisation. However, as reliable opinion holds that he was not known to be involved in inappropriate relationships with women, I have decided not to reveal his name. However, this should not to give him a clean chit for ethical behaviour, as it is well known that his hands are not clean where money is concerned.
Information was shared by others, not by me, to the funders of the organisation where I worked about the various wrongdoings of the executive director and the board members. But as far as I know, they did nothing to intervene at the time or maybe they chose to believe his lies and nobody asked me for my side of the story. Was it because I was seen as a Dalit woman and therefore one whose opinion did not matter?
So the institutional failure of the board and the funders are even more culpable for allowing the executive director to continue with his abuse of money, institutional, sexual and social power, especially over the project beneficiaries and staff from disadvantaged backgrounds. All this while enabling him to project an image of being a champion of the poor, Dalits, women, tribals and the environment.
Structural and institutional failures
Who will answer for these structural failures?
To return to the #MeToo issue, there are two general perceptions: that the people involved are mostly from the privileged groups and Dalit women are not speaking up against their oppressors.
The first one is undoubtedly true and even the media is seen taking sides which are convenient, allowing institutional voices to emerge from within the establishment, and where all the actors are from privileged sections. The media, the NGOs, feminist/women’s movement, the police and the judiciary are all complicit in the silencing and eliding of Dalit and adivasi women even though in reality, these women put up the greatest resistance to injustice.
The famous anti-arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh in the 90s, which even brought a state government down, was headed by Rosamma, a Dalit woman. Mathura, whose courageously fought for justice in the Supreme Court against her custodial rape in the 70s, was an Adivasi girl. Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman, was raped for reporting an instance of child marriage to the authorities, which was her job. Her infructuous fight for justice resulted in the framing of Vishakha guidelines to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace and the passing of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.
When Surekha Bhootmange and her daughter were brutalised and killed by a mob in Khairlanji in 2006, there was hardly any reportage, nor did the police register an FIR till there was unprecedented agitations by Dalit youth. In contrast, the Nirbhaya case prompted protests all over the country and even internationally.
All this shows that even to this day, the resistance of the marginalised continues to be silenced, ignored and minimised by all sections of the mainstream, including the media, civil society, judiciary and government.
When will the voices and struggles of the Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan women find a space in the mainstream? Will #MeToo be more of the same?
Cynthia Stephen is an independent journalist, activist and social policy researcher.