In a strong statement issued yesterday, May 1. the Network of Women in Media, India, has stated its stand of clear solidarity with India’s women wrestlers, whose most-celebrated champions are protesting against sexual harassment, abuse and bullying of their athletic community as well as maladministration by Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, Bharatiya Janata Party MP, the head of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and his cohort.
The NWMI has consistently spoken out against sexual harassment at the workplace – be it in the news media, the film industry or elsewhere – and is acutely aware of the immense courage it takes for those directly affected to speak out.
Since the women wrestlers first began their protest in January this year, what has been particularly disturbing to note is the establishment’s blanket response and censure of these athletes, the silence of those in government who are usually the quickest to share and even flaunt their success, coupled with the lack of any independent grievance redressal mechanism for India’s athletes, reads the NWMI statement.
Emphasising that the “mechanisms currently in place are not independent and do not serve to deliver justice. As in the case of the wrestlers, the victim-survivors here, who have been protesting on the roadside in Jantar Mantar first in January and more recently in April, find themselves in the dock rather than the head of the WFI, who, as a sitting MP from the ruling party, is an influential political figure.”
“It is also highly objectionable that the protesting athletes find themselves first distanced and then censured by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the country’s highest sporting organisation given the task to promote and protect Olympic ideals inside a sporting ecosystem says the media network.
Reports that the newly-appointed IOA Athletes Commission was prevented from making a formal statement of support and sympathy to the wrestlers, is to render its very purpose meaningless. Every Athletes Commission is meant to speak on behalf of the athletes. If this wrestlers’ serious allegations have been a test case to prove the integrity of the IOA AC, it is safe to say it has failed and needs to be reconstituted.
Our young athletes, both male and female, begin their careers at the age of 12 or 13 and are dependent for their progress on senior authority figures, be it coaches, federation or ministry officials. The POCSO charge against the head of the WFI should shake everyone invested in Indian sport and provide momentum to examine how many of all our national federations offer safe spaces for their athletes, with correctly-constituted internal complaints committees.
Indeed, there is no better a time to conduct a national and state-wide audit of all sporting bodies with reference to their good governance practices, particularly around anti-discrimination, harassment and bullying.
At their prime, India’s athletes bring the country happiness, pride and joy. Yet as is in the case of our wrestlers, it is also necessary for the country’s institutional structures and its sporting establishment to support them when their rights and bodily agency have been violated.
It is a matter of concern that it was only after sustained pressure from the wrestlers, the public and the media did the Delhi police register an FIR. This move should not take the wrestlers protest and their case against the WFI head off the news cycle.”
Finally, the NWMI has “urged all news media to give this significant protest the grave attention and coverage it deserves. In particular, we urge media organisations that have hitherto blindly supported the establishment to view the wrestlers’ case with empathy and understanding instead of falling prey to politicisation of the legitimate demands of the wrestlers….With responsible media coverage, this issue can be the springboard for the media to bring to light the wider truth about how most of our sporting bodies are managed, or rather mismanaged, by their political patrons.”