February 05, 2023

Sports Women and the Issue of Sexual Harassment

Jagmati Sangwan

VERY serious allegations of sexual harassment, corruption and dictatorial functioning that have been made by top Indian wrestlers against the president of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and member of parliament from BJP, Brij Bhushan, have once again revealed the dirty underbelly of this Indian sport, characterised by a dangerous combination of political nexus and a male domination of positions of power. These charges have been levelled in the backdrop of yet another case of criminal offences involving outraging the modesty of women registered in Chandigarh against the Haryana sports minister and former hockey player, Sandeep Singh, by a junior woman coach who is also a reputed athlete.

It is ironic and infuriating that the very authorities whose duty it is to support our sports women, are in fact the very ones who are taking advantage of their political might, holding hard-toiling sports women to ransom if they speak out against the harassment they are victim to. These are women who have  literally invested their blood, sweat and tears into gruelling months and years of training, often with no second professional option as backup and little familial support, making their exploitation at the hands of corrupt officials all the more poignant.

Sadly, these recent cases of harassment of women in sports are merely the tip of an iceberg. The true shape of this particular problem has in fact become quite gigantic and complex as was highlighted by the women wrestlers in their press conference. It is clear that any redressal and grievance provisions that have so far been instituted to take up the complaints of sports women have been absolutely ineffective and have instilled zero confidence in women to come out and report their abuse.
This is the main reason behind hundreds of sports women being forced to stay quiet and comply with the authorities till there is absolutely no other choice but to come out. Both the women athletes and their families know it well that it is not an easy battle against the powerful political appointees and those who operate in their patronage. In fact, most of the times women athletes who dare to raise their voice are forced to give up their careers that they have invested unimaginable time and effort in. This fact is very well established by the ‘Me Too’ campaign also.

It is important to highlight here that most of our international sports women have made it to that level with their families pooling in all resources at their disposal to support them. While watching the wrestlers’ press conference one felt the palpable pain and anger of those athletes who have finally reached the extent of frustration to come out in open during their crucial practice season as all official doors have been slammed in their faces. In Haryana too, the junior woman coach is running from pillar to post to get justice in her fight against the state sports minister. The Haryana government has shamelessly stood with the accused and has thereby delivered a very negative message to the entire women’s sports community by not dropping him from cabinet and at same time not removing him from the post of president of Haryana Olympic Association.

The question why most of these women report such cases after a substantial lapse of time, therefore, must be seen in the light of what all is at stake here for an athlete. The victim blaming and shaming by the accused and their political bosses, state machinery combined with the social stigma associated with cases of sexual abuse, make it extremely difficult for a lone victim to take on an entire apparatus that holds the devastating power to stall a sports person’s career at any given time and cause severe mental and social trauma.
One very important case worth remembering in this regard is of tennis player Ruchika Girhotra from 1990 who dared to raise her voice against the then president of tennis federation and IG Haryana Police, SPS Rathore. The entire state machinery and many caste-based organisations rallied behind the accused. He was in fact rewarded with a promotion to subsequently become DGP Haryana. In that severely hostile environment, Ruchika was forced to take her own life and eventually her father too passed away during that family’s fight for justice. Her brother was forced to live a life far away from the public eye. It was her close friend’s family, the Anands, and women’s organisations who painstakingly followed that case at every level for 19 long years and even then, the accused was merely jailed for six months and was fined Rs1000.

It is indeed unfortunate that not much has changed for sports women since then. Vinesh Phogat’s face with tears in her eyes talking about her deeper thoughts of taking her life should shake the people of this country especially the sports community to ask some stiff questions from our sports authorities and the present political dispensation, BJP in both these recent cases. Political leaders and federation heads, who bathe in the reflected glory of these athletes when they bring back medals, but shamelessly shield the accused every time a woman tries to raise her voice against the injustice must be made answerable.

There is an immediate need to formulate an effective legal process that needs to be followed in cases of harassment of women sports persons. Committees against sexual harassment must be constituted at all sports departments, federations and government sports bodies right till the highest levels. In cases where due processes are not followed, the authorities must be held accountable. It is incumbent on all the sports loving people of this country to show solidarity towards our sports women in their tough fight for justice and a level playing field. Actually keeping in view the huge participation of women in sports with the changing of times, a more effective sports policy for women with the inputs of experts is the need of hour to work on.

AIDWA  is up in arms for justice with other organisations and girls' family since end December, when Haryana junior coach's voice came to light. Meanwhile an open letter has also been written to PT Usha, the first woman president of Indian Olympic Association demanding her intervention. Jagmati Sangwan, in the open letter to  PT Usha, mentioned that sports women carry the twofold burden of not just performing well in their sport but also keeping themselves safe from harassment at the hands of predatory men. She said, “If we can ensure a proper and accountable functioning of sports administration and governments’ safeguarding, we can to a large extent save our women players from having to function under these extremely trying circumstances. Unfortunately, that is not the case right now and our sports women are having to pay a huge price for this.”

Jagmati requested PT Usha to ensure the proper constitution and advertisement of anti-sexual harassment committees in all sports offices and institutes as a statutory requirement. This would streamline the system of registering complaints in such cases and ensure that sports women and women working in sports departments are not forced to run around and harassed in their quest for help and justice.