Featured image from One Billion Rising event on February 14

The office – a reknowned Sri Lankan company specialising in the manufacture of lingerie for worldwide brands. This was my second stint at this establishment. Previously, I worked here for almost 10 years – this time, I was on a 2 year contract.

My designation was Head of Design, responsible for both the Indian and Sri Lankan markets.

Ironically, while the majority of people in the workplace were women, I was to learn that women empowerment, work ethics and even policies on sexual harassment were merely confined to words. “Male might is right” prevailed at this work place.

I was a victim of workplace sexual harassment. My immediate boss, who was married with two sons, thought he could overstep (and perhaps, abuse) his position for sex. He would not take no for an answer.

This took the form of my immediate boss attempting to be intimate with me and calling me inappropriate names. For months, he would send me inappropriate text messages. When we traveled on work, he would book my room next to his. What’s more, he began willfully omitting me from relevant group meetings and key decisions. He even threatened to make my work life miserable so that I could quit and then he could pursue me (as it would no longer be a “work affair” if he succeeded, as he put it).

To this day, my immediate boss remains at his post, although I reported the harassment.

The Group Human Resources (HR) Director, to my utter dismay, advised me to remain silent about the matter when I went to him for assistance, saying it would “embarrass the perpetrator” if the other CEOs knew about it. He assured me that the HR Department would take action. Yet, he willfully failed to take any action whatsoever to resolve the humiliating ordeal I was subjected to. Ultimately, he did not want to do anything to challenge the status quo.

He, too, still remains at his post, to this day.

Finally, I was compelled to bring this matter to the attention of the senior management of the company who also proceeded to deliberately ignore my plight. They failed to address this issue in any way whatsoever.

Having exhausted every internal option for redress, and in light of the continued failure of the company to even acknowledge my grievance, let alone take any action, I was left with no option but to prematurely resign from my post. The prevailing circumstances did not allow for me to carry out my work as required, nor to safeguard my integrity and dignity as a female professional.

I lost my income and my career. My livelihood changed by no wrong doing of my own but due to an age-old “boys club” situation in what is portrayed as a very modern company.

A few years after quitting, I was interviewed on sexual harassment for a blog, which went viral on social media.

I was quite amused at the sense of urgency that was shown by the Group HR Director, who sent several letters to me subsequently. I had good cause to suspect that these overtures for a very belated discussion on this matter were not with my best interests at heart. I was assured that my concerns would be dealt with fairly and impartially through a process to be agreed upon.

Unfortunately that request was two years too late. Further, the outcome of any such process was inconsequential as the damage had already occurred and was irreversible.

I was even accused by the company of “bringing disrepute to female employees” by talking about it. If one was to read that interview, no such interpretation can be seen in the statement I made, by any stretch of imagination.

In fact, since then, I have had many female employees from this company who have privately thanked me for being their voice. They met with me or have written to me regarding sexual harassment issues they have faced. Some feel trapped in their positions for various reasons, some have been laughed at when they have attempted to address it, some have been threatened not to expose the perpetrators, some are scared their spouses will react against the perpetrator and create an embarrassing situation. The list is too long to mention and even comprehend.

I was subsequently made aware that many companies in the industry either introduced new sexual harassment policies or revised their existing ones since my story went public. Many people realised how rampant sexual harassment is – not only in the apparel industry but in many other industries too.

I am a strong individual who is educated and financially stable. I have a sense of authority and responsibility at work and I am a strong personality. If this can happen to me as a senior employee, and senior management can still choose to shrug me off and quash the issue by ignoring all my complaints (which were both verbally discussed and given in writing) what must be the plight and status of women in relatively junior levels and at the lower end of the hierarchy in the work place?

Sexual harassment is like a virus. By turning a blind eye, you are also part of the problem. Take a stand. It could be your friend, sister, daughter, mother, girlfriend or wife. Being silent, ignoring the issue and not dealing with the perpetrator does not make the issue go away. It does matter – it always will.

Editor’s Note: Also read ‘Against All Odds: Sri Lankan women at the 70th year of Independence‘ and “Countering sexual harassment in the workplace: Interview with Mihiri de Silva