When it comes to cases of sexual harassment and assault, financial compensation has often been a grey area. Over the years, the topic has engendered several debates on its necessity and the way it is to be determined, its benefits to the victims themselves, and its often-unequal distribution. Two recent events regarding giving financial compensation to victims of assault and harassment got me thinking about the practice and why its current nature in our redressal systems must undergo a change.
On May 11, 2018, the Supreme Court of India paved the way for greater financial support for poor victims of sexual assault and acid attacks by giving the green light to a scheme which would mandatorily grant compensation of up to Rs. 10 lakhs to victims. The scheme is titled the “Compensation Scheme for Women Victims/Survivors of Sexual Assault/other crimes” and prepared by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA). It allows for the establishment of a “compensation fund” and empowers legal services authorities to grant interim relief to victims by assessing cases of harassment and assault suo motu (act on their own cognizance).
The “Compensation Scheme” comes at the heels of a recent NALSA report presented before the SC, whose findings state that only about 5-10% of sexual assault victims were able to get compensation under the relevant schemes passed by various states. Unlike in the past, this scheme is being seen as a positive move towards helping more victims claim compensation and actually receive it. It is also being seen as a way for the state to equalise the gap between the kind of compensation received by victims of assault and harassment, especially helpful to victims who are not well-off and have been financially affected by their experience of assault or harassment.
On the other side of the world, in the United States of America, financial compensation for victims recently became a debated issue once again, as Michigan State University (MSU) announced it would pay a total of $500 million in settlements to the victims harassed or assaulted in any way by disgraced Olympic physician Larry Nassar. The decision comes months after Nassar was found guilty of harassing and assaulting more than 300 women over the course of twenty years and sentenced to 40-175 years in prison; many of the victims were students of MSU or part of their athletics programmes. In order to compensate for its negligence and “turn-the-blind-eye” attitude towards the many complaints that had been filed against Nassar over the years, MSU has decided to settle with all of the victims and complainants.
This ostensibly hopeful settlement comes with a catch, however – the conditions of the settlement state that those who are financially compensated by MSU stop endorsing various bills in the works in the Michigan state legislature which would make the statute of limitations in such cases stricter. It is also seemingly insensitive – according to Lindsey Lemke, an MSU student and one of Nassar’s victims, while the compensation is a welcome move on MSU’s part, it isn’t nearly enough. She states, “No amount of money can ever change what we had to go through.”
However, this form of compensation given to victims of sexual assault and harassment comes with its own backlash – as Lemke has pointed out, no amount of financial compensation can make up for the physical, emotional, and psychological trauma that the victims have undergone. In cases such as the one concerning Nassar and MSU, financially compensating all the victims could very well be seen as a way of silencing the women and making sure that they do not slander the university further.
Financial compensation also gives way to accusations of the victims being “in it for the money”, as MSU initially did with Rachel Denhollander, one of the women abused by Nassar, when she complained – an act of malignment and insensitivity on the part of the university, to be sure, but a reaction that is not uncommon. It is already hard enough for women to find the courage to come forward and name perpetrators, while facing disbelief, derision, and blame by those around them.
In the case of the Supreme Court’s approval of the “Compensation Scheme”, it also creates a system which could potentially allow for false reports of harassment or assault to be filed, resulting in false claims to compensation, thus trivialising the severity and gravity of actual complaints made by victims.
In the end, though, it is integral that financial compensation remains an available avenue of redressal for cases of sexual crimes since it is important for organisations to be able to compensate victims for any physical harm or trauma related to the workplace or their livelihood. It is debilitating to be a survivor of assault and not have the option to claim the financial means to pick yourself back up and support yourself, especially when you are not well-off enough. Provisions and schemes of financial compensation must be carefully thought out and crafted in such a way that they benefit the victims that they aim to compensate the most.
By Rutvi Zamre
Rutvi Zamre is an English major who knows that she doesn’t know much.