Be aware of what sexual harassment is and the related policies

In The Economic Times , August 22, 2010

The Supreme Court’s Vishakha Judgement of 1997 is now seen as a landmark in legal guidelines for cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. This judgement was delivered after Bhanwari Devi a development worker in a Rajasthan state run programme tried to take a stand against child marriage and was gang raped by members of the Gujjar community for her interference. In response to a petition by women’s groups after this, the Supreme Court laid down that, “each incidence of sexual harassment of women at workplace results in violation of the fundamental rights gender equality and the right to life and liberty.
While highlighting the significance of the Vishakha Judgement, Delhi-based lawyer Aparna Bhat, points out that since there’s no law yet in India on sexual harassment at the workplace, the Supreme Court’s guidance provide the only guidelines on how such cases need to be dealt with. “However, though these guidelines are effective in dealing with cases of sexual harassment in the public sector and governmental organisations, in the case of the private sector a lot of grey areas remain. For private organizations having committees to look into cases on sexual harassment at the workplace is voluntary. Often there is lack of knowledge and awareness within the organization on such committees and policies even if they exist,” she says.
The lack of awareness on guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace is a common complaint of women in various organizations—both private and public sector. “Organisations need to have a briefing session for new recruits – both male and female—on a code of conduct in the workplace. This will set the tone for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. There should be avenues for addressing complaints, checking on their veracity and for taking quick remedial action thereafter,” says Poornima Shenoy, president, India Semiconductor Association.

Besides a better legal framework, the need for women in senior positions to become champions for safety and security at the workplace is also necessary. “Legal provisions are necessary but not sufficient to address this issue. Until there are senior women in executive positions who can be role models and who are able to participate in defining recognition and resolution of such cases, women who are being harassed are unlikely to bring the cases to light,” says Gita Dang, founder director of HR consultancy Talent Advisory services. With a larger number of women in India joining the workforce in different industry segments the definition of sexual harassment, too, is changing. The high-tech face of sexual harassment, for instance, is now having an impact on Indian offices.

The women in the BPO industry have their own set of issues. In 2007, after a huge outcry from women’s organisations and the state women’s commission, the Karnataka government withdrew a controversial notification banning night shift for women employees. “The fact that sexual harassment is seen as a human rights violation is a positive step in the right direction. It is also important that the employer is accountable for the safety of women at the workplace, following the Vishakha Judgement,” says Soma Sengupta, the founding director of Sanhita, an NGO that works as a resource centre on issues of sexual harassment of women at the workplace in eastern India. It also runs a helpline for women who are victims of such harassment. “We have women from all walks of life contacting us on the helpline with various kinds of problems. Such cases are on the increase these days,” Ms Sengupta adds.

India Inc is waking up to the menace of sexual harassment

In the Economic TimesAugust 22, 2010

The recent expulsions of Penguin’s Canada chief executive David Davidar and Hewlett-Packard’s global CEO Mark Hurd brought to focus the grave issue of sexual harassment at the workplace. While globally, there is a definite mechanism followed to counter the menace, corporate policies in Indian companies are now slowly beginning to take shape. Industry is reinforcing the need for clear and stringent policies to deal with sexual harassment cases. Some of them were the import of globalisation, with foreign companies bringing in the same workplace laws into India for their Indian employees, while some companies introduced them to tune HR policies At softdrink maker PepsiCo’s India offices, a sexual harassment policy is in place for the last six years now. According to Pavan Bhatia, ED-HR, PepsiCo India, the policy is based as per Supreme Court’s guidelines on sexual harassment. There is also a committee for the issue consisting of 12 senior management executives at Pepsi, in case someone lodges a complaint. The committee appoints at least five members to duly investigate the matter and takes decisions accordingly. Those found guilty can also lose their job at the company. “There are various ways that one can register a complaint. Either one can directly write a mail to the CEO, HR head or the functional head and we also have a Women’s Council, through which one can approach the management,” he says. Similarly, LG Electronics India has a permanent committee of three females members on sexual harassment. While one representative is from the senior management, the other two are from mid-to-junior levels of management. Every year, the company invites volunteers to join the committee but also adds that it has not faced a situation where their services could be used. At least 25% of the company’s managerial staff are women, while at the manufacturing side, of the 1,500 employees, about 15% are females.

Although Maruti Suzuki claims to have had no instance of sexual harassment in the company for the last 25 years, they have formulated a robust Sexual Harassment Policy which will be announced to the company employees in the coming days. “This policy will comprehensively cover all the aspects of workplace discipline and safeguard employee interests,” says S Y Siddiqui, Managing Executive Officer-Administration (HR, IT, Finance and Corporate) at Maruti Suzuki India. But despite such punitive measures being taken, there still is a lot of hesitation among victims to bring such cases to the fore. Supreme Court Lawyer Pavan Duggal highlights some concerning statistics. “For every 500 instances of harassment, only 50 get reported and only one gets registered as an FIR. I get many cases a month on this issue, particularly sexual harassment at the workplace, and indeed the number of cases has risen appreciably.” Duggal recalls a case where some obscene pictures of a female employee were recently posted across the office by none other than her superior. “She first complained to him, having no other recourse, but he himself was the perpetrator. He also kept track of her office mail to know who she was attracted to, and all her personal details. He had no right to do that, and faces three years in jail with a Rs 5 lakh fine. That is, if he gets convicted,” he adds.


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