MARD's anti-sexual harassment cell is a welcome step, but the medical field needs more gender sensitisation

By Aashika Ravi

Would you be surprised that the medical field needs a #MeToo movement? Yes? No?

In a 2016 study conducted by University of Michigan professor Reshma Jagsi, it was found that 30 percent of female physicians surveyed in the US reported having personally experienced sexual harassment by a superior or colleague. Here in India, as The Times of India reported, a study from Kolkata published in Reproductive Health Matters revealed that 77 in 135 women health workers, including doctors and nurses in two government and two private hospitals, had experienced sexual harassment.

But a brief blip of good news. Earlier this month, the (unfortunately named) Maharashtra Association of Resident Doctors (MARD) introduced an anti-sexual harassment cell to protect resident doctors from sexual harassment and encourage them to come forward with complaints. (A resident doctor is someone with a basic medical graduate degree who is pursuing a post-graduate degree and practising under the supervision of a senior doctor.)

As such, MARD’s initiative was not kick-started by a particular study or incident but Dr Alok Singh, general secretary of MARD, acknowledges Jagsi’s study as food for thought. “It could be around that percentage (30 percent) here too, but we weren’t getting that many complaints. If it’s not happening, then that’s great but we’ve started this (cell) so that they don’t remain afraid and stay silent,” he said.

When all organisations with 10 or more employees are required to have an Internal Complaints Committee according to the Vishakha Guidelines, why does MARD need a separate anti-sexual harassment cell?

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

“Every college has an ICC, even in medical colleges we have guidelines but the students don’t speak up out of fear. The problem is that we resident doctors are working and studying at the same time. If it’s a senior official or professor (who has perpetrated sexual harassment), the problem doesn’t come out in the open. Because mostly, the female doctors are afraid of academic loss. So to support them to lodge a complaint and get them justice, we’ve started this cell,” said Singh.

The cell has two women representatives from MARD so that sexual harassment victims feel comfortable confiding in them. Apart from this, complainants can approach anyone in the association who will forward the complaint to the respective college authorities and follow up with them on the nature of the complaint and the action taken.

While MARD’s initiative is a great step by a student body to protect those who are disadvantaged in the hierarchy, the problem isn’t as straightforward as it seems. MARD’s initiative stems from a culture of misogyny that pervades the medical field.

The Ladies Finger’s story on the outdated two-finger test that checks for the virginity and sexual history of a sexual assault victim for instance, proved that the practice is widely taught in medical colleges, despite having no scientific explanation. “The test has a starring role in the special universe of Indian sexual assault investigation, because the general assumption is that a woman habituated to sex may also lie about rape,” TLF wrote back then. Or you could read our report on the health hazard posed by judgemental gynaecologists.

Mumbai-based doctor Anamika Pradhan (name changed), traces this sexism from the classrooms in medical school to the ORs in hospitals in an article for Agents of Ishq. The essay is packed with anecdotes ranging from bizarre (doctors who believe the Pandavas would never have been born if Kunti had access to emergency contraception) to homophobic (if a gay man gets HIV, it’s “his punishment”.) She thoroughly exposes the patriarchal notions that permeate what we mistakenly believe is a progressive environment because it is technologically so.

When we broached the subject of sexual harassment in medicine, Pradhan had a lot to say. During our conversation, she reminded us of Sister Aruna, the nurse who was raped by a ward boy in 1973 and strangled to the point of a vegetative state but kept alive until 2015 by the sisters at KEM Hospital as “a mascot of everything that was wrong in the system.” But sexual harassment and assault was only the tip of the patriarchal iceberg in medicine, said Pradhan.

“There are many dimensions to this issue and sexual harassment is just one of the manifestations. Medicine is a system created by men, for men and women were only allowed a few hundred years ago. The whole system is geared towards a hierarchical and male-dominated kind of system,” she said. The skewed gender ratio, she added, is a major factor.

“When we joined college, all of us were academically equal, but when it came to choosing post-graduation, the assumption was that most of the women would choose paediatrics, pathology or jobs that require something that you could blend with your future family life or didn’t have too many on call. So the surgical line is dominated by men. I would say 99 percent are men. It creates a very difficult atmosphere for women, suppose you are the only woman orthopaedic surgeon for example and everybody else is a man, in their down time they are just hanging out and could do things that make women uncomfortable.”

As Pradhan stated multiple times in her article, this patriarchal system finds its roots in the schooling system.

For instance, Shwetangi Shinde, a third year medical student from JJ College in Mumbai, talked about a personality contest that happens every year in the college’s cultural fest which judges “everything except your personality.” During one such contest, she recounted, a contestant was asked if he would marry a girl who was a virgin. To this, he responded: "Agar aapko ek candy di gayi ho, kya aap licked waali candy khaaoge ya jo licked nahi hua ho, woh wali khaaoge? (If you were given a candy, would you eat one that was already licked or an unlicked candy?)" Yet another guy apparently went on about how “if girls are on their period, if you want to go out, you have to think about cramps and during their period, sex nahin milta (you don't get sex).”

This, she said, apart from professors in her college who give unsolicited opinions on pre-marital sex and make lesbian-hating comments in class and a special post in the student body called Ladies’ Representative because all other posts in the college union are invariably assigned to men.

Another dimension that Pradhan brought to our notice is that of healthcare workers who are often neglected in a universe that revolves around doctors. “Besides the residents and doctors, there are many other healthcare professionals involved in a hospital, which has a very gendered stereotyping. All the nurses are women and all the ward attendants are male. Other class workers don’t even have any system of redressal. Nobody is looking at them. The doctors are a very small part of what happens in a hospital. It is the administrators and managers responsibility to ensure that these kind of systems are in place," she said.

The question then, is whether MARD’s initiative addresses the rot in the system. It is a positive step no doubt, but preventing sexual harassment in healthcare requires a multi-dimensional approach with gender sensitisation at its core, while MARD’s anti-sexual harassment cell is merely, to quote Dr Pradhan, “a band-aid where one requires an amputation.”

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.

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Updated Date: Aug 30, 2018 20:35:25 IST

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