During the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were fighting to avail healthcare services necessary to sustain their lives from accessing labs for RTPCR tests, oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, plasma donors, and volunteers were trying their best to facilitate resources, ration etc., for the survival of those in need, in the dark underbelly we heard instances of sexual harassment occurring in hospitals.
There was a news report of a 38 year old female COVID patient being sexually harassed by an ambulance attendant whilst travelling to a scanning center.
In another report, a female family member of a COVID positive patient, was sexually harassed, by snatching her dupatta and touching her waist, all whilst she was taking care of her ill husband. One can just pause and wonder her predicament and dilemma of whether to complain or not in case it affects her husband’s treatment.
Instances were cropping of patients molesting other patients in the COVID -19 isolation ward, and even doctors, under whose care one often unquestioningly relinquishes control, were complicit in such acts. In a particularly gruesome instance, a 25 year old female COVID -19 patient’s modesty was outraged for two consecutive days by her attending doctor.
These instances haven’t been limited to medical staff and patients and were also seen when a good Samaritan who shared her personal phone number online, to help those seeking COVID resources, was bombarded with inappropriate messages and solicitations for sexual intercourse .
Such unwanted acts have not only been faced by females, even though they are disproportionately at the receiving end. An instance of which came to light with a report of a male COVID-19 patient who was sexually assaulted by a doctor whilst admitted in the intensive care unit in a private hospital in Mumbai.
On the flip side there have also been instances of health workers being sexually harassed by those who they are trying to serve. For instance an ASHA health worker, on COVID duty was molested whilst on duty by a youth.
These are only some of the instances which came to light in national news and indicate how instances of sexual harassment have worsened during the pandemic when one would expect otherwise.
These incidents raise the question that why is sexual harassment so prevalent and what factors lead to its cause during times when humanity should be at the fore?
Data suggests that there is a rise in sexual violence during any emergencies such as natural disasters, armed conflicts, and health crisis. There is an increase in violence against women which is linked to various reasons some of which are stress and insecurity about basic necessities like food, job or economic insecurity, resulting in sense of helplessness, loss of control along with poor coping strategies which in some cases manifest itself in violence against women including sexual harassment as highlighted in the news pieces above.
During the pandemic, what we have seen, is the widespread prevalence of quid pro quo form of sexual harassment, which literally translates to ‘this for that’. Simply put, it means when a person in a position of power sway their power over a person with lesser power (perceived) and holds them ransom to it. The people in power abuse their position to ask (explicitly or implicitly) for sexual favours, in exchange of help or assistance required. In the present context there have been news report of a man in Delhi explicitly asking for sexual intercourse in exchange for providing an oxygen cylinder to those in need. Other incidents, like the doctor assaulting a patient or medical staff harassing the attendant had made it difficult for them to stand up against it for the fear of being denied medical treatment.
The general impact of such harassing behaviour from people in the healthcare services towards patients and attendants would translate into an utter sense of helplessness. As it is almost a trade-off that if they keep quiet about the transgressions, they might be able to save their life, or that of their loved ones in need. At times, it may even be difficult to comprehend the indiscretion, as we normally are less guarded around doctors or medical staff, as a matter of their profession, we expect them to transcend our normal physical barriers for medical examination.
Medical Staff face Sexual Harassment
When doctors and medical staff face sexual harassment from patients, they may be internally conflicted. As they have a duty of care towards the individual even if the individual is inappropriate, it may not automatically vitiate their duty. Moreover, they are often trained to empathize with their patients, who may feel powerless, frustrated, and try to re establish control over the situation through such actions, which of course is no justification for meting out the same. Often, when doctors or nurses face sexual harassment, they rationalize it or place the imminent needs of their patients above their own. This places them in a difficult situation where they may fear for their own safety yet may have an overwhelming sense of duty and guilt on non-fulfilment of the same.
What factors may lead to Sexual Harassment?
There have been various attempts to explain and narrow down the reasoning behind such rampant occurrences of sexual harassment.
From a social cultural perspective, sexual harassment is seen as a consequence of gender role socialization which essentially means promotion of male dominance, sexual objectification of women and the cultural approval of violence against women. The social cultural perspective also sees sexual harassment as a tool to gain or maintain power arising from a sense of entitlement felt by powerful people. There is a suggestion that people lower in social cultural power and status and those lacking in organizational power which generally happen to be women or minorities (sexual, religious, etc.) are more susceptible to being sexually harassed by those in greater power.
Effects of Sexual harassment in a hospital
As much as we may not want to think about it, but we cannot shy away from the fact, especially in light of the above reported instances that like every other place, sexual harassment is prevalent at hospitals, nursing homes or places were healthcare services are rendered.
Moreover, factors which make organizations prone to sexual harassment such as hierarchical structure, male dominated environment (especially in positions of power), and a climate that tolerates transgressions particularly when committed by those in power; are seen in hospitals and nursing homes as well.
Sexual Harassment is faced by those who work there such as female doctors, nurses, technicians but also by those who access these services such as patients and attendants (those accompanying the patients).
– Sana Sud, Advocate & Associate, POSH at Work & Samriti Makkar Midha, Psychologist (Clinical) & Psychotherapist External Member & Trainer Head, Partner POSH at Work