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Even eyes can reveal a lot: When village women read the intent of lustful man

By Gagan Sethi* 

This was my first experience in sexual harassment at workplace. It happened in 1983 at Golana, which shot into prominence in 1986 because of the brutal attack on our Dalit colleagues leading to the death of four. The issues were getting land for housing, minimum wages, and refusal to accept insult and humiliation suffered by them for generations. But more about this later.
In 1983 we set up a cooperative in Golana. Situated in the Bhal region of Anand district in Central Gujarat, it is here that river Sabarmati meets the Gulf of Khambhat. The land allocated to us for running the cooperative was along the river. It was part saline and part productive. We decided to grow vegetables, and also some fodder, and get women to take control of the initiative . The target group was Dalits of the village.
After much discussion, we agreed that women were more capable in growing and taking care of vegetables. It was a difficult challenge for us to bring in substantial number of Dalit women in decision making.
Also, it was a challenge for a male outsider to work with rural women. There was a need to train these women in the nitty-gritty of cooperatives, and bringing women, living in a hamlet, for a five-day training to Ahmedabad was a difficult task. It meant six months of convincing.
Building trust with women meant we would have to build trust with male members of the family. After all, women were always under the watchful eyes of men. It also meant that there was a need for a door-to-door contact, understanding women’s fears, building their confidence in us as individuals and an organization.
Most of these meeting would be held in the outer courtyard. One could see gender dynamics working all through: Even when we ate food in any house, women would cook, but men served.
We achieved our goal working diligently. We succeeded in bringing women to Ahmedabad, about 80 kilometres way, for training. The collective got into action, and began discussing the smaller details about how to go about doing things. Soon we realized that we needed an agriculture assistant to be on the site to help women in their job.
We hired a young Patel agricultural scientist, whom we found quite good in issues related with vegetable cultivation. I took him to the village and introduced him to people in the village, arranged for his stay and food, and told the women’s committee to help him adjust.
A week later I returned to the village on my regular visit. I went straight to the Vas, as the hamlet of the Vankar Dalits was called. Soon I sensed an air of unease. I tried to inquire from those present, a little jokingly, whether they had fed our new fellow well. At this point two women came up to me, and said they would like to talk. I was alerted: Something was amiss.
Taking me aside they told me hesitatingly: “Gaganbhai, we don’t know how to say… But this chap you have put in here among us isn’t suitable.” I didn’t understand what had happened. I looked more curious, and they bluntly told me: “His eyes don’t look good” (aa enee aankh barabar nathi).
The import of the statement hit me like a stone. Very angry, I put him behind my motorcycle, and took him straight to my director in Ahmedabad. I told the director to tell him to resign first, and then I would reveal what had happened.
So scared was the young man that he wrote his resignation. I told the director, a priest, who was very compassionate, that it was one year’s trust which this fellow had destroyed in just a week.
Sexual harassment at workplace is a new law. The lesson that we learned was clear enough: If only we listened to women we work with, we would solve the problem. The village women read the intent of the lustful man by reading his eyes. They did not have to wait for an untoward incident to happen, and then set up a committee to inquire. Vigilance and prompt action is all that is needed.

*Author is founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social Justice. First published in Daily News and Analysis, Ahmedabad

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