Sexual harassment is a social problem. Apart from implementation of all law and regulation, a positive attitudinal change towards women is required.
Sexual Harassment is a major concern of the women’s safety movement in India since the early-80s. During the 1990s, a very controversial and brutal gang rape at the workplace involved a Rajasthan state government employee who tried to prevent child marriage as part of her duties as a worker of the women Development Program. Based on the facts of Bhanwari Devi’s case, a Public Interest Litigation was filed by Vishaka and other women groups against the state of Rajasthan and Union of India before the Supreme Court of India. Another case that came to light was of Goa Chief Minister, who allegedly harassed his secretary, was subsequently forced to resign.
Similar cases such as of Rupan Deo Bajaj, an IAS officer in Chandigarh, against the ‘super cop’ KPS Gill. An activist from the All India Democratic Women’s Association, against the environment minister in Dehra Dun, an airhostess against her colleague Mahesh Kumar Lala. An IAS officer in Thiruvananthapuram against the state minister.In Odisha Ravenshaw College students,Nalco CMD case in 2004,IIT BBSR, Phd scholar, Lady Security officer against legislative assembly’s speaker, etc.
Before 1997, women experiencing sexual harassment at workplace had to lodge a complaint under section 354 of the Indian Penal code that deals with criminal assault to women to outrage women’s modesty and section 509 that punishes an individual for using a word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman. These sections left the interpretation of outgoing women’s modesty to the discretion of the police officer.
In 1997, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement in the Vishakha case laying down guidelines to be followed by establishments in dealing with complaint about sexual harassment. The court stated that these guidelines were to be implemented until legislation is passed to deal with the issues. Then, the Government of India requested the National Commission for Women (NCW) to draft the legislation. A number of issues were raised regarding the NCW draft, until; ultimately, a drafting committee was set up to make a fresh draft. Several women’s organizations were part of this committee.
The Supreme Court directive provided legitimate space for the hidden truth about sexual harassment at workplace, to surface. Earlier one only heard about victim- blaming, witch hunting and blackmailing. Now women are fighting back tooth and nail. The electronic and print media have become extremely responsive to the issue of sexual harassment.
My firsthand experience with providing support to women survivors of sexual harassment at workplace has convinced me that we need to counter the myths about sexual harassment at workplace with concrete impacts. Much progressive legislation has been enacted in our country to safeguard the interests of women in our society. All these laws have been made for the empowerment of women.
These provision, acts, rules and laws need to be used by the women when the necessity arises. All these provisions, as enshrined in our law books, should be published for nation-wide awareness.
As manifest in the preamble to the constitution of India,’’ equality of status and opportunity’’ must be secured for all its citizens; equality of every person under the law is guaranteed by article 14 of the constitution.
A safe workplace is therefore a woman’s legal right. Indeed, the constitutional doctrine of equality and personal liberty is contained in articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Indian constitution. These articles ensure a person’s right to equal protection under the law, to live a life away from discrimination on any ground and to protection of life and personal liberty.
Sexual harassment constitutes a gross violation of women’s right to equality and dignity. It has its roots in patriarchy and its attendant perception that men are superior to women and that some forms of violence against women are acceptable.
No woman shall be subjected to sexual harassment at any workplace. ‘Section 3(1) of the sexual harassment of women at workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.In 2013, the GOI notified the sexual Harassment of women at workplace (prevention, prohibition and Redressal Act (referred to as Act hereinafter).
It is important to note that the Act provides a civil remedy to women and is in addition to other laws that are currently in force. Consequently, any woman who wishes to report instances of sexual harassment at the workplace has the right to take recourse of both civil and criminal proceedings.
(The writer is a social activist and lawyer and a former member of Odisha Women’s Commission.)