New Delhi: Environment rights NGO Greenpeace India could be in for more trouble as an ex-staffer has gone public with allegations of rape and sexual harassment by her colleagues.
The organisation’s inaction against the perpetrators has spurred more female ex-employees to come out with similar accusations. Now, the NGO is at the receiving end with activists lambasting the organisation’s irresponsible handling of the cases.
Recently, Greenpeace was in the news after the government froze it's accounts for non-compliance of norms. The Delhi High Court, however, released two of its accounts so that it could function.
In an article published on a web forum last week, an ex-employee (name withheld) of Greenpeace alleged that she had to leave her job in 2013 after being sexually harassed and raped by her colleagues.
Narrating her ordeal, she said that it started a year after she had joined the NGO at their Bengaluru office. The first incident happened during an official trip in October 2012.
"I got a call from a senior colleague at 11 pm, asking me to vacate my room and insisting that I sleep in his suite. In another incident, he approached me physically despite my discomfort, insisted on force-feeding me birthday cake," she told IANS.
Though she registered a written complaint with the HR manager, she did not receive any verbal or written communication from the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of the organisation, which looks into sexual harassment cases. To her shock, she learnt that the person was a serial offender and no action had been taken against him despite his misbehaviour with two other female employees.
However, she said, she was blamed for registering the complaint.
"Once in an official meeting, in my absence, two senior employees indulged in character assassination against me. Even some female colleagues, part of the ICC, made me feel that I was at fault, that I didn’t know how to ‘set boundaries’," she said.
However, matters came to a head in 2013.
"It was after a party, when a male colleague whom I knew quite well found me unconscious and raped me. You cannot imagine the pain and fear I went through. I was terrified to speak and I knew even if I had, no one in this organisation would come to my aid.
"I did not have the strength to report my rape, neither to the police, nor to my employers. How could I, when the processes had failed me once already?" she asked.
Traumatised, she left the NGO after a few months.
She said it took her long to overcome the incident, and finally, she decided to tell her story through a Facebook post in February this year.
Immediately after her post, Greenpeace issued an apology on their website and promised her to re-investigate the case in an adequate manner.
Admitting the lax attitude in dealing with the case in 2012, the statement said, "The victim deserves both an apology and a meticulous examination of what happened."
However, the victim pointed out that the NGO’s subsequent actions exposed their empty talk.
"The ICC, which convened in March, recommended the termination of the offender, but the executive director overrode the decision on some pretext and the only thing I received was a written apology from the molester,’’ she said.
Supporting the claims of the victim, another ex-senior manager Reema Ganguly, who was a part of the ICC, told IANS that she quit Greenpeace in May after executive director Samit Aich overrode the committee’s recommendation.
"The committee’s suggestion of terminating the molester was overturned by the executive director, and they dismantled the committee which was only three months old, whereas the duration (for such a committee) is for three years. It was very clear that the committee is an eyewash by the NGO,’’ said Ganguly.
However, Aich defended the decision to dismantle the committee. ''We came to know that the committee decisions were leaked to many people in the office. So I sought legal opinion on this and I was told that since its leaked, the decision stands invalid. So we dissolved the committee and reconstituted it,'' said Aich.
When asked why they did not follow the committee's decision of terminating the offender, Aich said a strong warning was given to the person.
“I have given a strong warning to the person and as a result, he has put in his papers. I admit that there have been flaws in our earlier system and we will tighten our disciplinary actions in future,'' he added.
Reacting to the allegations, Programme Director for Greenpeace India, Divya Raghunandan, told IANS that the former employees had raised some valid issues and that they will investigate it in a "serious manner".
Acknowledging that there were flaws in the earlier system, Raghunandan said, "When we revisited the cases, we felt that it should have been handled in a better way."
Asserting that they were re-evaluating the overall procedures for handling complaints of sexual harassment, she said that the employee in question had resigned. "We have reconstituted the ICC and ordered an audit into the old cases. The implicated employee has put in his papers already,’’ she said.
However, activists and former employees question the failure of the NGO in punishing a serial offender and protecting him for years.
Holding the executive director of Greenpeace India responsible for the shabby handling of the cases, Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said that the events had tarnished the image of the NGO.
"Greenpeace failed to stand by their promise of punishing the offender. They disbanded a committee, which recommended punishment for the molester. The NGO is muzzling voices of dissent. They have stretched the cases for so many years. The punishment has to be spelt out clearly,’’ Krishnan said adding that they have written to Greenpeace International and were waiting for their response to act further.
Voicing similar concerns, Usha Saxena, a former employee, alleged that she was forced to quit Greenpeace because she took a stand against the rampant cases of harassment in the NGO.
Saxena, who joined Greenpeace in 2009, said that her protests against sexist jokes and remarks fell on deaf ears.
"I filed a misconduct complaint against senior HR director for making discriminatory and threatening remarks about my gender, my age and ordering me to seek ‘psychological counselling'. For that, I was bullied out in 2013,’’ Saxena told IANS.
Another ex-staffer (name withheld) also said that she was harassed by the same person implicated in the first incident. She said she resigned in March 2015 after inaction by the NGO.
"He made some objectionable comments in front of many senior colleagues, including the executive director. No one reacted, rather they were all amused.
"Though she registered a complaint with the HR Department the next day, it met the same fate as the previous ones," she told IANS.
She also said she would take further legal action if the offender is not punished.
(Preetha Nair can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)