Some days ago, a former staffer of Greenpeace India wrote a blog post about the sexual harassment she faced in October 2012 while working at the organisation. Greenpeace’s response to this and other complaints of sexual harassment has been a textbook case of how not to act.
Let’s begin with a summary of the complaints and their aftermath. In November 2011, another Greenpeace staffer had been subjected to an inappropriate sexual proposition by a colleague at an office party. This happened in the presence of some of the NGO’s officeholders. The woman immediately protested, but all those present chose instead to join the offender in laughing at his ‘joke’. This was no isolated instance – the same man had been subjecting her to unwanted and intimidating sexual propositions repeatedly, when she was staying at the official guest house where he was the only other occupant. Later, she raised the matter with Greenpeace Program Director Divya Raghunandan, who was also the head of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) against sexual harassment. Instead of treating the communication as a formal complaint, as she was duty bound to do, Raghunandan first suggested that this was just an isolated drunken joke. She then suggested that the complainant herself communicate her discomfiture to the man, and that she too would try and speak to him about it.
In October 2012, the same offender victimised another woman employee, who has described the incident in her blog post. This time, his behavior was downright threatening. Using his power as a senior administrative officer, he made an official phone call to her at night, insisting that she was being ordered to vacate her hotel room and move into his own room! She was in fact forced to vacate her hotel room that night; other male colleagues allowed her to take refuge in their room. In addition, he made unwanted physical contact with her several times, following her around, force-feeding her cake, and sitting uncomfortably close to her. The victim made an official complaint in December 2012. Following her example, the colleague who had earlier been harassed by the same man also filed an official complaint regarding the November 2011 incident.
By this time, NGO could not have failed to realise this employee was a serial offender. Shockingly, however, the Greenpeace internal complains committee (ICC) did not initiate any formal enquiry, and there is no record of any action taken at all. In 2015, Greenpeace informed the complainants that in fact, the 2012 complaints had been investigated and the offender ‘grounded’ (prevented from going on out-of-Delhi assignments). Their only mistake, they say, was that they failed to inform either of the complainants of this punishment.
How can Greenpeace claim that they conducted an ‘enquiry’, when there is no record of it? How can they claim to have punished the offender, when no such punishment exists on the records, nor was it communicated to the complainants? It doesn’t even appear to be true that the employee was grounded since he travelled to Bihar on an official assignment a few months later.
In the months following December 2012, at least one woman employee, Usha Saxena, who sought to help her younger colleagues by red-flagging the sexism and misogyny in office culture, was subjected to gendered and ageist bullying, advised to take ‘psychological counselling’, and eventually made to quit. It is telling that while Greenpeace saw no reason to sack a serial sexual harasser, a woman who had blown the whistle against sexism and sexual harassment was seen as a trouble-maker.
In February 2015, some Facebook posts referred to the sexual harassment episodes. Greenpeace was at that time facing an all-out offensive from the Modi Government. This is perhaps why they chose to attempt some damage control, and issued a statement acknowledging that a sexual harassment complaint of December 2012 “was not dealt with according to the high standards we hold ourselves to”, and apologized failing to act with “due diligence.” Subsequently its ICC, having reviewed the two complaints against the administrative officer, recommended that his employment be terminated.
Instead of acting on this recommendation, the Greenpeace management chose to dissolve the ICC and junk their recommendation, substituting termination with a “harsh warning” to the offender, asking him to apologise to the complainants.
The apology letter sent by the offender is simply a personal email that does not acknowledge any sexual harassment, but merely apologises for “insensitive behaviour,” and claims he did not “intentionally hurt…feelings”, and hopes he and the complainant can continue to be “good friends”. How could the Greenpeace India management team imagine that this in any way constituted justice for the kind of sexual harassment described by the complainants? When sexual harassment complaints committees prescribe an apology as punishment, they follow a prescribed format, which requires the offender to acknowledge and apologise for the precise act of sexual harassment committed by him.
Following the public blog post by one of the complainants, Raghunandan responded, in a comment on the blog that “the person who caused you so much pain is leaving the organisation.” In a communication to the media, the Greenpeace ED has claimed that in response to the “strong warning” by him, the offender has “put in his papers.” Allowing the offender to resign as a last ditch face-saving measure is no substitute for an official punishment that goes on his record.
To add insult to injury, Raghunandan told the complainant that her repeated complaints against a blameless management go “against the basic feminist principle of dialogue and engagement”.
The program director, in her comment, speaks of an internal “audit” of processes of handling sexual harassment complaints. Surely, much more is called for. The complainants have emphatically maintained that while they have expressed their lack of faith in the ICC process and the Greenpeace India management, they do expect Greenpeace International to act. Nothing short of termination of the serial offender in keeping with the ICC recommendation would be acceptable to them; along with action against all those who trivialised and concealed the incidents of sexual harassment and fostered a hostile work environment for women.
Speaking up against sexism and sexual harassment and demanding workplace conditions free from violence and harassment is of no less urgent importance that protecting the environment and defending civil liberties from government repression. All organisations and activists from the people’s movements, including the several committed activists inside Greenpeace India, ought to speak up publicly in support of those who have raised their voices against sexual harassment in the organisation.
Just as violation of the environment and the rights of tribal people and forest dwellers is not an ‘internal family matter’ that should be kept away from international forums, the violation of women’s rights is not an ‘internal family matter’ for Greenpeace or any other organisation. Voices from within raised publicly against sexism should not be delegitimized as ‘betrayal’ or ‘bad timing’. They must also be joined by voices from outside, if Greenpeace is to be saved from itself.
The author is Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association