In 2015, a woman was arrested for forcefully attempting to have sex with an auto driver. Umesh Prasad, the autorickshaw driver, was lured into her flat and she requested sexual favours from him. In a recent case, a group of five men were arrested for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old boy. The boy was stripped while a video of the incident was recorded and circulated. The group, who forced the victim to walk naked across the colony, was later arrested.
The powerful notion that gender must be viewed as a spectrum, as opposed to an end has unfortunately not yet been fully acknowledged. A 2010 study conducted in various cities in India found that nearly 19 per cent of the male population conceded that they were indeed subject to sexual harassment at their place of work. What calls for immediate attention is that our society completely fails to recognise that men too can be the victims of sexual harassment. Instead, it is regarded as a taboo and this silence gives rise to ignorance — burying the widespread issue and muffling a hard stand against it.
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The various kinds of acts that comprise harassment or rape at the workplace include the demand or request for sexual favours, explicit sexual overtures or physical contact and advances. With the growing popularity and use of the internet, sexual harassment can take place online too. In fact, statistics evince that 13 per cent of men belonging to the age group of 18-24 have been the victims of online sexual harassment.
While one cannot neglect the deplorable issue faced by men, statistics of such cases are not available as there is a lack of independent research on the matter. Several laws and statutes have come into force to mitigate sexual crimes against women. It does not, however, follow that men are free from the clutches of sexual crimes. In fact, cases of male harassment are hardly ever reported owing to the dearth of legislation in this regard and the fear of societal retaliations and reactions.
The matter has been taken up in several countries across the world. Approximately 77 countries have legally addressed the issue and enacted gender-neutral laws. However, the Indian Parliament has constantly rejected the proposal of gender-neutral sexual harassment laws, in spite of the rising number of cases in this regard. Indian sexual assault laws have been framed in such a manner that the sections are limited to women and are out of the reach of male victims. Sections 354 A, 354 C, 354 D, 509 and 376 of the IPC pertain to specific types of sexual assault — such as insulting the modesty of a woman, stalking a woman or committing rape on a woman — and they completely neglect the possibility of men being targeted. Instead, men are regarded only as the offenders and women as the victims. The Vishakha guidelines — which strive against sexual harassment in work places — exclude men from the extent of sexual offences. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, indicates by its very name that it is applicable solely to women.
In early 2016, the University Grants Commission introduced Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of Sexual Harassment Regulations, which permits male students to lodge sexual harassment cases against males, females and transgenders. But no case has been lodged yet. This absence of any substantive legal provision and fear of society’s reprisal is reflective of gender stereotypes.
The dearth of legislation to protect men does not arise from the absence of such offences against men. The need of the hour is gender-neutral laws and rights. In order to widen the scope of gender equality, India must free itself from the shackles of patriarchy, which perpetuates a culture of silence. There is a need to conduct studies specific to male harassment and determine the prevalence of sexual offences against men. When the need to enact male friendly laws is acknowledged, the imminence of safeguarding women shouldn’t be neglected. Developing effective complaint mechanisms can help in building a conducive environment for victims in a workplace.