The Costs That Women Bear

It’s ironic that victims bear the costs of sexual harassment in India. Here are the many ways in which women pay the price.

Girls in India learn early to navigate their way through a thicket of hands. Hands everywhere you turn, everywhere you walk. Hands waiting to grab at any inch of the unprotected body. Perhaps the worst is when these hands do not belong to faceless people, but to people we know and trust and yet, they want to grab. We learn to normalize this behaviour, just like people in hot areas normalize the heat. Hands define our world and we learn to live with them. We internalize not to react or complain. We learn that if a hand does grab us, we did not work hard enough to protect ourselves.

In how many ways do we pay the price for this? What are the costs of this sexual harassment for a woman?

Cost Number 1: Persistent Trauma

First, the direct costs of the harassment. The physical and/or mental violations produce an immediate and as well as long-term cost for the woman. The mental trauma of the harassment can persist for decades for some people. Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist and professor, said she had trouble staying in closed spaces and has been in therapy to recover from her childhood trauma.

Cost Number 2: Eternal Vigilance

The second cost is the cost of constant vigilance. A woman will want to be efficient at her work, but if she faces the possibility of workplace sexual harassment, then her energy is occupied in looking out for signals of predatory behaviour. For instance, women tell us that they take autos instead of bus to work to reduce the chances of being harassed. One woman even told us that she carried a pen-knife with her at all times — not to attack the perpetrator, but to escape. Further, research suggests that sexual harassment causes both physical and mental stress which leads to loss of interest, diminished productivity, decreased job satisfaction and absenteeism.

Cost Number 3: Social Sanction

The third cost is the cost imposed by society on the woman who dares to complain about her harassers, or harassment in general. The social norm is to assume that “taali do haath se bajti hai.” Or that good girls do not have bad experiences combined with stringent norms on sexual expression/liberties of women. If a woman complains in a society which holds on to this norm, she is either assumed to be lying or having had a consensual relationship which violates the moral codes of the society and hence should be punished. The norm implies that the onus of protection is on the woman, and hence the woman who claims harassment is assumed to have either not protected herself well enough. or is lying.

Tanushree Dutta dared to voice her displeasure about Nana Patekar’s behaviour and a bunch of goons were let loose on her. Even beat journalists who are repeatedly harassed by the police, surprisingly, did not participate in the #MeToo movement out of fear. Abhishek Dey finds that a beat journalist complained and had wild gossip about her doing the rounds. Similarly, Sakina, a garment factory worker, was considered a ‘fighter-cock’ and her voice reduced because she complained. “I am terrified,” said Dr Ford during her testimony to the senate, country and the world.

The social cost can be seen in the economic outcomes for those who did complain. We now know that Vinta Nanda and Tanushree Dutta have had to rethink their career choices and workplaces after being harassed. In another case, a woman judge after being abused by another male judge had to quit her job, because she felt she would not get justice. Consider the irony.

Similarly, in our interviews with women working in daily-wage jobs, we find that when a woman is in a hostile workplace, she chooses to put up with abuse because her livelihood will be threatened if she complaints. She will have no food to put on her dinner plate. The threat comes both from the perpetrator at the workplace and families, who want her to stay at home in order to save and protect her, and sometimes to prevent her from ‘creating an issue’.

Punish the Victims

Namita Bhandare reports that an HR executive had to leave the publishing industry after 17 years because she complained about harassment by her boss. The HR executive was then isolated at work. This is after having proof to back her case. In the end, she did not even get her gratuity. This is the script followed in most cases when a woman complains about harassment. In fact, the situation is so extreme that there are reportedly no official complaints from domestic workers out of fear of rebuttal and job loss. Even in our interviews with domestic workers, the women feel hesitant to share their stories. Women don’t complain because women who dared to have a voice and use it were shown their place.

The social burden of proof also rests on the complainant. Society feels the need to judge the veracity of the complainant and punish false complaints. (This sentiment is also reflected in the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace [Prevention, Prohibition and Redressa]) Act, 2013 which has a clause regarding punishment for false complainants). A complaint that lacks credibility is considered a false complaint. But how do we judge credibility? During the course of our interviews, we asked women whether complainants who come forward told the truth always. Summing up the current norm, a participant replied that when a woman has really suffered sexual harassment, everyone will know because her complaint/voice will come from within.

Dr Blasey Ford’s testimony at Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing has been called credible, while Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’s hearing was not deemed credible enough in her time. We do not know what defines ‘coming from within’, but perhaps the optimal amount of anguish must be present every time the woman narrates her experience. She should probably also demonstrate tangible losses and also belong to the right race/class/caste. She must have appropriate attire and behaviour at all times to demonstrate she is one of the good women.

Importantly, sexual harassment proliferates because Cost Number 3, the social cost of reporting, is excruciatingly high. The woman who is harassed does not complain, and hence the perpetrators see no negative consequences of their actions. If anything, they feel more enabled to predate. Our society needs to be jolted out of its state of silence about rampant harassment. The #MeToo and #MeTooIndia movement provides that jolt, and has helped break that cycle by reducing the social cost of reporting harassment. It is in our hands to further reduce the social cost and, hopefully, other costs as well.


This write-up borrows from the initial findings of a collaborative effort with Dr Aruna Divya and Dr Vaibhavi Kulkarni, also at IIMA, to understand sexual harassment faced by low-wage workers.

The views expressed here are of the authors and not of IIMA.


Also read:

The Importance of #MeToo — Episode 90 of The Seen and the Unseen
Men Must Step Up Now — Amit Varma
Changing the costs for the rational sexual predator — Shruti Rajagopalan (Mint)