by-Neerja Deodhar

After the media and entertainment industries, voices from the education sector are now speaking up about harassment and abuse at the workplace, as part of the #MeTooIndia movement. As of 19 October, at least five such accounts have emerged on Twitter involving Teach For India, which is known as India’s leading non-profit organisation in education.

Poulomi Roy, an alumna of Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication, has alleged that she was mentally and sexually harassed by Teach For India fellow Kapil Dawda when she was interning at the organisation as part of a compulsory internship, facilitated by her college. In an account posted on Twitter, she alleges that the harassment took place in a school in Govandi, Mumbai. She was 18 at the time.

Roy has accused Dawda of touching her inappropriately, invading her personal space, chastising her for interacting with fellows who were closer to her own age, and making demeaning comments about her. She adds that he allegedly threatened her with a bad report, and went on to write a report which contained “blatant lies”.

Roy eventually informed her college authorities about Dawda’s alleged behaviour. As part of their investigation, staff members called up fellows from the organisation, claims Roy, asking them if Dawda had harassed her. Roy alleges that following this, the fellows who were contacted asked her why she had falsely accused Dawda of harassment. Her college cancelled her internship, Roy told Firstpost, adding that no action was taken against Dawda, who is now the city director for Teach For India in Bengaluru.

#MeToo has created a platform where women — or anyone who has faced sexual harassment — can speak out, and be counted

At least five #MeToo accounts have emerged on Twitter involving Teach for India

When contacted by Firstpost, Dawda said he “unequivocally denied all allegations” made against him. “I am on a temporary leave of absence while the organisation’s internal complaints committee is investigating the matter. I intend to fully cooperate with the process. I am also independently considering legal recourse. I will not be able to comment further at this time,” he said.

Anupam Siddhartha, director of Symbiosis Centre for Media and Communication, when reached for comment regarding Roy’s case, said, “The Symbiosis International (Deemed University) ICC is investigating the matter as of now. As the matter is sub judice, we cannot comment on the same.” Siddhartha said the deputy registrar, SIU, could be reached for further updates.

A woman fellow working in Pune has accused her one-time manager Sachin Paranjape of asking her inappropriate questions, and touching her even when she made her discomfort with such behaviour evident. She alleges that Paranjape would call her at odd hours on the pretext of giving her feedback, usually negative in nature. The fellow also alleged that Paranjpe forced her to be alone with him in an empty room, where he verbally harassed her. She adds that she did not speak to the HR manager because the latter “claimed to be his [Sachin’s] best friend publicly”.

Speaking about her view of the organisation’s stance towards women’s safety at the workplace, she told Firstpost, “There are a lot of ex-female employees who are coming out and talking about their horror stories at the hands of senior members of the organisation. But recently, we got an e-mail from the founder Shaheen Mistry, asking us to directly complain to TFI and not publicly speak about the experiences. It really infuriated me.”

Firstpost’s emails to Paranjpe (who is currently a senior programme manager at Central Square Foundation), from 16 October onwards, went unanswered.

One woman fellow, who did not wish to be identified, details an experience involving a male fellow at her school who would allegedly harass female Teach For India staff by flirting with them. She says that he would turn ordinary conversations over text messages into conversations about their profile pictures. “He was known to save women’s WhatsApp pictures and send it back to them with unwelcome comments about how they look… He would stand outside our classrooms to ‘observe’ us and ‘shadow’ us as we taught — it always felt lecherous and sleazy.”

Despite confronting him and telling him to stop engaging in these behaviours, she says the man persisted. The woman adds that she and her colleagues also discovered that their male peer had physically hurt some of the children in his care; in particular, he had pinched a girl student. This is when the woman and her colleagues decided to formally complain to Teach For India.

“We had a formal conversation with the HR and our programme manager at the time. We were told by the HR to ‘seriously consider’ whether or not to raise a sexual harassment complaint. This automatically caused us to second guess ourselves. We were not encouraged or believed, and it was dismissed as unimportant,” she says. She adds that of all the accusations made, Teach For India allegedly only took cognisance of the child protection policy violation.

She says that action taken against the male fellow in question was that he was put on a “support plan”, where the programme manager they worked under would visit his classroom more frequently. Despite this, she says, he continued to be abusive. Teach For India allegedly took up active measures only when one fellow approached the headmistress of the school, because she felt that her safety was compromised even within the premises of the school. Members of the human resources department, the project manager and some senior staff members arrived at the school and asked him to resign immediately, she said.

“Little was done during our fellowship when fellows raised complaints about teachers/school staff who were sexually abusing children in the school. TFI was in a position of power and could have leveraged this to call out these abusers, but they chose not to, and dissuaded fellows from speaking up about it,” said this fellow, about the organisation’s attitude towards sexual harassment.

A Mumbai-based ex-employee of TFI, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke about the harassment that she was witness to when she was a fellow. She alleges that in 2012-13, a male employee forced himself on and subsequently harassed her colleague and friend. “His behaviour affected her considerably, and she went on to inform the TFI management about it. The CEO was aware of who the harasser was,” she said to Firstpost. She alleges that no action was taken against the accused, because the survivor’s complaint was “not recorded over email and said in person”.

Were these employees aware of Teach For India’s policy on sexual harassment at the workplace? Two of them say that there was never any public or open conversation about it (it is mentioned in their contract), while one remembers it was spoken about as part of the HR policy, but an internal complaints committee was not mentioned. “To the best of my knowledge, I remember that the process was to complain to HR and take it forward from there,” she explained.

Two of the accusers also spoke about the work culture at Teach For India, highlighting how committed fellows have to be to their job. “Anyone who has done the fellowship knows how emotional the experience can be. There is literally no day that I did not work and I gave it my all to teaching — and this I did while dealing with harassment by my manager,” she said. She added that very often, the boundaries between one’s personal and professional life become blurred over time at the organisation.

Firstpost contacted Teach For India to ask about the organisation’s policy on sexual harassment, including whether it allows accused employees to interact with school children. The organisation said that it cannot address questions regarding the specific cases since it is investigating allegations, and has instead shared the following statement:

We are shocked and saddened by the allegations that have recently been raised involving members of the Teach For India community. We believe in a workspace where all of our members, especially our women, feel valued and safe. We are currently working around the clock to investigate and take necessary actions, in line with the Sexual Harassment Act. We have an Independent Complaints Committee in place as per the law and being guided by independent counsel and expertise to ensure objectivity.

While our current investigations are going on, we have asked the three alleged members of our community to take a temporary leave of absence.

We want to ensure that all female members of our community have forums to speak. We encourage the usage of the right-to-speak platforms and have activated a grievance redressal email ID ([email protected]) where all sexual harassment complaints can directly be addressed to the Internal Complaints Committee. Our team is also working to gather advice from external consultants to assess that we have a robust mechanism in place to not only ensure compliance to policy guidelines, but equally importantly to also engage with women. We’re also in the process of scheduling town-hall meetings to engage with community members. Finally, we’ve directly engaged with some of the complainants and are working to get in touch with others. We will continue to reach out to ensure that they have a platform to express themselves openly.

As an organisation, we do need to go beyond compliance and ensure our culture is one that is safe and caring. This includes our ability to stay vigilant in educating ourselves, our teams and the ecosystem; taking a stance on behaviors encountered no matter how small; admitting mistakes and practicing accountability.

We fully support the public discussion surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace. We acknowledge that it is long overdue. And we are committed to doing the right thing. At present, all of our emotions are invested in ensuring we maintain and build a work environment in which our colleagues can work together in an atmosphere that is open, engaging and free from sexual harassment.

Network 18, of which Firstpost is a part, has received complaints of sexual harassment as well. The complaints which are within the purview of the workplace have been forwarded to our PoSH committee for appropriate action