#MeToo: Sexual Harassment in the medical fraternity

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The brutal gang-rape and murder of a veterinary doctor from Hyderabad and also the death of the Unnao rape survivor have once again sparked off nationwide protests and debates about safety of women in India. Medicine is often regarded a noble profession. But the not so noble actions of the members of this profession have gained wide spread attention in a discussion started on Instagram by Dr. Abbas Ali, a faculty of Orthopaedics. This thread has turned into what could be called the #MeToo movement of the medical fraternity. It has highlighted the fact that sexual harassment is rampant even among the medical colleges of India.

Over a hundred medical students from all over the country have shared their horrifying experiences on the thread. In one story that was shared, a medical student was asked to do breast palpation on herself by an external examiner during the practicals! Another medico shared that she was detained in all 3 subjects of MBBS first year because she turned down a request for sexual favours from a member of the faculty. Several more spine chilling incidents were shared where in female medical students and even patients were molested by senior doctors during ward rounds, bed-side case discussions and in the out-patient clinics. Some shared that they were brazenly subjected to lewd remarks and molestation in packed lecture halls and operation theaters!

The victims go through enormous amounts of anguish and mental trauma after being subjected to sexual harassment. They often drop out of the course or quit their jobs. Many often spiral into depression and also develop suicidal tendencies. This also negatively impacts their careers and their future is jeopardized.  And the tendency of the society to blame the victim only adds to their agony.

In most of the incidents that were shared on the Instagram thread, there seem to be a few common denominators. Most of the perpetrators were in a position of power. They were mostly senior students, residents, members of the faculty or heads of departments. Even patients have been known to molest and misbehave with female doctors on duty. Another common factor is being threatened with career ending consequences.

Many of the victims were threatened with dire consequences if they reported the incidents to higher authorities. They are often threatened that they will be detained in the university exams, not be given a chance to perform a certain surgery or that their dissertations will not be signed. This is a common tactic that is used by people in-charge to coerce the victims into silence or submission for further exploitation. As a result, majority of the incidents go unreported and the perpetrators get away without any consequences.

In a study carried out by International NGO, Population Council, 77 of the 135 women doctors and nurses, working in four hospitals in Kolkata, admitted sexual harassment. However, over 50 of them did not complain.

In 2013, the Medical Council of India directed all medical colleges to constitute a committee for the redressal of sexual harassment complaints. It is mandatory for every work place in the country to constitute such a committee according to the judgment passed by the Supreme Court of lndia in the Vishaka case of 1997. The judgment has defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexually determined behaviours” such as physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. The Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its members should be women. It should also involve a neutral third party to prevent the possibility of any undue pressure or influence from senior levels.

The disciplinary actions for sexual harassment by employees include suspension, demotion, withdrawal of increment and even dismissal from service. The concerned State Medical Councils have the power to book the offenders for infamous conduct and award a professional death sentence (penal erasure).  Medical students found guilty of sexual harassment can be suspended, debarred from examinations and even expelled. Apart from this, the provisions of the Anti-Ragging Act allow a criminal case to be filed against the accused student.

Sexual Harassment of women at work place is a grave violation of human rights. Many perpetrators have been brought to book and punished accordingly. Resident Doctor Associations and Medical Students Unions have played a vital role in the redressal of these cases. More awareness needs to be generated among members of the fraternity so that formal complaints are filed and perpetrators face the consequences of their vile actions.

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