The #MeToo Movement

The #MeToo movement in social media picked up after 80 women made sexual abuse allegations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017. Following this, Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano tweeted encouraging the twitteratti to open up their experiences of sexual abuse with the hashtag #MeToo; the phrase was first used by American social activist Tarana Burke in 2006. Mostly, women have opened up for cases relating to sexual abuse at workplace through this movement. In India, the #MeToo movement has picked up in the last few weeks in social media. The alleged perpetrators have often been eminent persons from corporations, media, politics, academics, entertainment industry, etc. The victims in these cases have shown great courage to speak against these people in power and expose the potentially exploitative nature of relations that exist in modern production processes. Since this movement has used only social media as a tool, quite naturally it has left out majority of victims in India who are not part of the cyber world. An anecdote: 81.29% of the female workforce in India is rural women according to the 2011 Census.

Sexual violence in some form or other is everyday reality for most women in India. These include violence from a partner, a family member, friend or an otherwise known person, sexual harassment at the workplace, sexual harassment in the street, assaults by unknown persons and child sexual abuse. Comparison of National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data issued by the Union Health Ministry and National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data issued by Union Ministry of Home Affairs reveals that 99.1% of sexual violence cases go unreported to the police. According to the NFHS-4 survey, every third woman since the age of 15 in this country has faced domestic violence. Among the married women in this section, 83% face domestic violence from their husbands. Among unmarried women, 27% faced violence from their relatives, 18 % from their boyfriends and 17% from a friend or acquaintance. According to NCRB, in 2016, 12% of all crimes against women were rape – this comes out to be 6.3 cases per 100,000 of the population. This figure is not very high when compared with the rest of the world; but it has to be seen in the context of the 99.1% under-reporting of sexual violence cases in India.  Considering this aspect would put India among the nations with the highest levels of crimes against women. It may be noted that the numbers are even more horrible if we consider the crimes against Dalit women indicating the role of caste in gender based violence.

To understand the #MeToo movement, one has to understand the power equations that exist in the workplaces in urban setup for middle and upper middle class working women (since that is where the voices have been raised in this movement). It is no coincidence that many of the allegations being raised are pointed at members of society with extensive economic influence and power over their victims. It is also no coincidence that victims have often been unwilling to use the legal and political frameworks that exist to protect and enable them to come forward. There are economic relations that exist between everyone involved: between alleged perpetrators and victims, between victims and the economy at large and between the public and the companies that employ alleged perpetrators. These grossly unequal relations coupled with absence of democracy in organizations exacerbate the problem. Victims fear losing their jobs or at least expect lower than the usual growth because of the powerful perpetrators’ influence; victim shaming adds to the problem. The victims who have come out to raise their voices have shown great courage against all these odds.

It must be borne in mind that most of the working women, even in urban India, do not work in glass walled offices. They are engaged in professions such as construction work, house helps, etc. where job security and hence scope of exploitation is much more. The refusal of a sexual advance by a contractor towards a woman construction worker most likely would end up in termination of her services and may be of her husband as well. This probably means a couple of days of hunger not only for the duo, but also for their small child.

The #MeToo movement is a wonderful step in the right direction. It needs to get bigger from here and develop into its next stage. Instead of individual participation, the agitation will have to take a collective form. Demands for overturning the steep power structures in organizations have to be raised. Demands for democratizing the workplace, unionizing the workplace and right to create elected women’s organizations in the workplace will have to come up.

To address the issues raised by the #MeToo movement it must be understood that lecherous men are only the symptom of the disease – the economic, social and cultural relations that exist in Indian society are the root cause. If the manifestation is to be tackled, the root cause has to be attacked. For complete victory of women’s rights, activists and individuals will have to look at the issue in a holistic way and fight for economic, social and cultural rights as well.

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