The #metoo campaign following the stories of women assaulted by Harvey Weinstein restate the ubiquitous sexual harassment of women at Workplace. It is not the first instance of abuse of power by the people in important positions. The infamous Tarun Tejpal case back in India is yet another glaring example of the all pervasive problem of harassment of women. In many instances women are unaware of the complaint mechanism and existence of law against sexual harassment at the workplace.
Indian women have been in the work force since the 1950s, the number multiplied multifold post liberalization in the 1990s. Yet, sexual harassment didn't hit the Indian legal map until 1997. In 1992, Bhawri Devi, a village level Rajasthan government employee was gang-rapped by the village landlords after she tried to stop a child marriage in their family. The case led to the filing of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by a women’s rights group- Vishakha, after which the Supreme court laid down guidelines, also called as Vishakha guidelines to be followed at the workplace.
Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act came into force in 2013. Sexual harassment is punishable under section 354 of the Indian Penal Code. The convict can face one to three year imprisonment and/or fine.
What constitutes sexual harassment at workplace ?
Sexual harassment is making unwanted sexual advances , obscene remarks, showing sexually offensive visuals and demands for sexual favors. Inappropriate texts, unwelcome social invitations, lewd comments making sexually colored jokes, innuendoes, staring, intimidating women or any other behavior that makes a woman uncomfortable constitutes sexual harassment.
Execution of Sexual Harassment Act at workplace
The sexual harassment act requires all companies with more than 10 employees to set up an internal complaints committee, with one external member, headed by a woman. It is meant to encourage women to lodge their complain in a fear free environment and ensure a transparent system of redressal. But the reality is far from hopeful. Non-compliance of the act is rampant in companies.
According to the 2016 report on sexual harassment by Indian national Bar Association, despite the provisionsthere is no complain committee at most organization and they have no knowledge of the process.
Women find it overwhelming to challenge the employers or male colleagues for the fear of termination from their job, retaliation, lack of confidence in the organization , low awareness about laws and procedures and fear of embarrassment and stigma.
Most organizations tend to push these cases under the carpet for they view it as a blot on their public image and not as a breach of an individual woman’s right to safety and dignity. There is a sense of denial in that organizations believe that sexual harassment is something that happens in other organizations and does not exist in their own because there are no reported cases. Organizations even evade calling the term sexual harassment, such cases are often labelled as ‘inappropriate behavior’ and ‘internal matter’. Companies tend to dismiss this issue as unimportant and hope it will be forgotten in the due course. Or, the HR department will be equipped to handle it and the employees rules of conduct will be adequate to handle the situation should the need arise. Companies fail to recognize that sexual harassment is a socio-legal issue and HR department is not enough to tackle the specifics of the issue.
In response to the #Metoo campaign, Women and Child Development Ministry has launched an online portal called as the ‘SHe-box’ to report sexual harassment at workplace.
How can men contribute?
Gruesome sexual violence on the rise against women and right-wing groups validating them should be a cause of worry for all of us. Men can be powerful allies too in sexual assault prevention.
As men you need to understand that passing comments, staring, making unwanted phone calls, whistling or any other activity that is making a woman uncomfortable needs to stop now. Don't encourage or participate in such behavior.
Take down your Bollywood tinted glasses which tell you that when a girl says no she actually means yes. That’s nonsense! No means no. Understand the concept of consent.
Do not respond to sexist jokes and question people who do. It will make them think. Refrain from using gender based abusive words and language that objectifies women.
Remember that only the person perpetrating sexual violence is responsible for it. Whether a woman was wearing short dress or not, whether she was drunk or not, the time she went out and what company she was in is irrelevant. Do not blame and shame the victim.
Men need to interrogate their own privileges and the traditional notions of masculinity and femininity that put women in a hierarchical subservient position. They have to understand that gender equity is an important facet to violence prevention. Legal framework can hardly yield success until there is enough sensitization about the issue at the workplace and the cultural practices which allow men to feel superior to women are quashed.
Sarpotdar, Anagha, “Sexual harassment of Women, Reflections on the Private Sector”, Economic and Political Weekly of India, Vol XLVIII No 40, October 5, 2013.
The author of this article, Richa Singh is a content writer with Investronaut. She is a voracious reader and a keen traveller.