The Sexual Harassment Bill, going forward
KUMKUM SEN IN THE BUSINESS STANDARD
It’s been more than fifteen years since the Supreme Court passed its judgment in the Vishaka Vs. State of Rajasthan (Vishaka), and ten since the Medha Kotwal case. Vishakha constitutes the Indian Judiciary’s first pronouncement on gender justice in the workplace.“Harassment”was interpreted to include physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, any physical verbal/non verbal overture or a demand/request, as being indicative, and not comprehensive. The Court prescribed certain guidelines and norms as representing the minimum standards to be followed by employers and other responsible persons in containing and dealing with harassment, bearing in mind that neither civil or penal laws provided adequate protection, till such time a law was enacted. Certain acts of sexual harassment constitute criminal offences, as under section 209 of the Indian Penal Code for performing an obscene act or utterance, and also under Sections 354 and 509 for outrage of modesty of women. But these provisions can not address the various insidious forms sexual harassment can take, and more important, the redressal is not the organisation’s responsibility.
In the absence of indigenous jurisprudence, the Supreme Court relied heavily on the International Convention of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which India had recently signed and ratified, and the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993. However the Government took no interest in pushing the law.
On the other hand, various corporations, multinationals as well as domestic, particularly listed companies, which are subjected to higher degrees of transparency and disclosures, established their internal systems, including grievance cell and a Committee with a senior woman employee as the Chair. Welfare and safety requirements of the women in the work place, such as late night transport, night were firmed up after the murder of a BPO female employee by the cab driver. Instances of complaints and incidents usually do not escalate beyond the HR Department and the Committee. To the limited extent I have been involved as a legal adviser, such issues are usually effectively resolved, or any one party or both move out with or without a gentle nudge from the management. Otherwise, there is complete opacity, particularly in the fast growing services sector, where women are a significant part of the work force, in the implementation of all or any of the Vishakha safeguards, as there is no threat in non-compliance, in the absence of a law. Even then several complaints have reached the High Courts, and the victims have secured justice, notably in the Tata Metallic and Apparel Export cases. More often, the breach has been in the constitution and functioning of the Committee and this was exposed in Medha Kotwal’s Petition before the Supreme Court, wherein on the revelation that the Government was the worst offender, the Court called upon the Central & State Governments and various professional bodies, such as the Bar Council of India to disclose the measures taken by them.
The Bill, introduced in 2010 and referred last month to a Standing Committee, has finally moved, notwithstanding enormous resistance. It.has its critics, but is well drafted., and endeavours to include every type of victim in its definition of an “Aggrieved Women”, who does not have to be an Employee to qualify and to bring within its ambit , students, research scholars, patients. “Employee” has been amplified to include trainees, apprentices, contract and adhoc workers. Perhaps inclusion of “service provider” and “customer” would have provided a more inclusive connotation. Contrary to media reports, the Bill specifically includes domestic worker and “dwelling house” belying the popular impression that this sector has been ignored.
“Workplace” definition deals with every kind of environment which would qualify, in the private and government sectors as well as dwelling places, vehicles, aircrafts, different destinations, hotels in trying to capture all possible locations where harassment having a nexus with workplace or the victim can be perpetrated. The acknowledgement of this concept is critical in the context of the diversity of locations where harassments are perpetrated, rape of a female complainant in a police station being an example.
Interestingly “sexual harassment” is not defined. Section 3 of the proposed bill describes this to include unwelcome sexually determined behaviour, and the various items conceptualised in Vishakha, making it clear that is not limited to any assurance of preferential or threat of detrimental treatment, conduct which is humiliating or inducive to a hostile and unhealthy work environment.
While laws should aim at obliterating sexual harassment and the mindset that evokes such behaviour, panic levels should not be escalated. Every light flirtation or a wolf whistle is not necessarily an act of sexual harassment. Every environment and not all classes of harassment cannot be subject to a uniform policy.
What doesn’t make headlines is the gender neutral subtle and non-violent harassment in the workplace, unrelated to sexual expectations or quid pro quo, which can be based on colour, caste, religion, nationality, age, political affiliations, and the aggression is manifested by way of belittling observations, persistent criticism of work, withholding resources. Till such time the law makers and the Government acknowledge this,,,the victims of such harrasment are without recourse.
Kumkum Sen is a partner at Bharucha & Partners Delhi office and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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