An eight year old boy is beaten by his father for not waking up on time for school. A tenth standard student is constantly teased about her weight by classmates. A first year student is made to dance for his seniors as part of ‘ragging’. An intern is casually propositioned by her boss. The context and the people in these scenarios may differ but the story remains constant. Harassment or bullying as an experience makes the environment hostile, unfriendly and seeks to belittle or humiliate the victim. Harassment is physically, emotionally or sexually harmful and is against the basic human rights of dignity, growth and safety.

A common factor that ties most experiences of harassment is that the perpetuator is usually in a position of power. The position of power can come from age, superior size, gender, seniority and economic or social status and can be misused in various environmental contexts right from the home, to school and the workplace. Harassment is not always obvious or and does not always exist as black and white. Harassment, especially in the workplace can be subtle and insidious, so much so that the victim is often left wondering if her/his discomfort is all in the mind, after all. A joke or sexual innuendo by a co-worker, a hostile environment at work, malicious gossip directed towards one person etc. can all be forms of harassment in the workplace.

A fundamental problem that is created when there is a power play in place is that often times accurate feedback does not reach the perpetuator. The imbalance in power creates an atmosphere wherein honest communication is not possible. The silence on the part of the victim can be misinterpreted as a green signal or encouragement for the unwanted behaviour. The greater the power wielded, the lesser the chance of someone speaking out against his/her behaviour when it is inappropriate. Nobody wants to be the one to tell the powerful person that he is in the wrong.

There is much debate currently over harassment and what that means today. Most social scientists argue that harassment is about a statement of power and authority. This is in fact true of most forms of harassment or abuse – physical, mental or sexual. It becomes almost easy to abuse power when provided with the opportunity to do so. There are many who might have taken out their personal frustrations unfairly on subordinates, made a few ‘harmless’ jokes with their colleagues or given off a large chunk of the workload to the ‘newbee’ at work. Harassment does not have always have to be an outright demand for sexual or other inappropriate favours by a senior. The cliché, ‘with great power, comes great responsibility’ is true and something that all in a position of power would do well to remember.

In this environment of unequal power, it becomes very difficult for the victim to come forward with her/his complaint. For a student to ask her professor to stop commenting on her appearance, for a child to ask his parent to not hit, for a worker to tell her senior to not make sexual innuendoes can be difficult and can leave the superior feeling offended and outraged. It is up to us to make the environment safe enough to enable victims to speak out and empower them with the confidence that they will be helped and supported on speaking out, rather than singled out and further humiliated. This can only happen with stringent laws and policies, a supportive environment and responsible expression of power.

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