HUNTED AT WORKPLACE, HOUNDED FOR PROTEST
In a city where everyone strives to find their place under the sun, women face a double challenge — to excel in their professions and also fight off strong gender bias
Swati Deshpande | TNN
even in a big city like Mumbai, not many women, in fact very few women, actually report sexual harassment at work,’’ says Flavia Agnes, a leading women’s activist and lawyer who began Majlis, an organization that takes up women’s rights issues.
The much-awaited Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill is expected to become a law soon, yet activists are sceptical. “The passing of the Bill will enable victims to fight but its implementation has to be seen,” says Flavia. For 16 years, the Supreme Court’s directives in the landmark Vishakha case were the only guidelines. It called for committees to include women members and from NGOs, the new law will do the same. The law, in fact sets a 90-day deadline for in-house committees to dispose of harassment complaints and failure to do so attracts a penalty of Rs 50,000.
In the US in 2010, there were almost 12,000 sexual harassment cases. The data, compiled by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes “only 5-15% of victims report harassment”. There are no specific figures for India, but across corporate cubicles, public sector corridors and unorganized employment platforms, cases of sexual harassment in the workplace have risen, say experts. And predatory bosses often target “vulnerable women’’ Agnes says, especially those who need the job and suffer silently.
But women in senior positions have also reported harassment. In 2007, a former director of a multinational firm alleged her male colleagues had shown her semi-nude photographs of a woman stripper in 2005 and that a colleague said he could arrange for a male stripper at a discount. She filed an FIR against several colleagues, four of whom got relief from the Bombay HC a year later. Last year, at a meeting held by the Maharashtra state commission for women on sexual harassment, Thansky Thekkekara, additional chief secretary said, “From personal experience, I can say we are all exposed to
at the workplace.’’ She said the state sometimes takes the issue “lightly’’. Vandana Krishna, principal secretary, state women and child development admits “sexual harassment at work is one of the most difficult subjects to handle.”
Agrees advocate and human rights activist Mihir Desai who has been on various committees set up under the SC judgment. “Often, the woman who complains of sexual harassment becomes a victim and the fight then becomes one of trying to save her job,” he says. Desai says harassment is often verbal, with insinuations. Advocate Rina Pujara at the Bombay high court says, “Companies are not happy to receive sexual harassment complaints. Women are made to feel they may be making much ado about nothing. Some are even told a pretty woman is likely to face harassment so she must learn how to deal with it.’’ Adds advocate Anand Grover, “Though sexual harassment at the workplace is pervasive, few report it as they don’t want to be seen as troublemakers or undergo the humiliation of crossexamination.”
A professor at a Mumbai college c o m p l a i n e d a g ainst her head of department for repeated suggestive remarks and denying her a promotion after she rebuffed him. The case is now before the HC. “Often women end up fighting not just the man but also the institution. The woman has to suffer not just indignity but also huge legal expenses,” she says. The tendency to malign women who do speak out must change, say activists. NGO members on committees in several MNCs say complaints sent to global head offices always elicit quicker and pro-active responses.
A senior government official says, “The least we can do when such cases come to our notice is to support the woman mentally, encourage her to come out and complain. The woman shouldn’t look back after years and feel it was the most traumatic experience of her life.’’
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Sexual harassment is a form of abuse. At the workplace, it is also about power play of a bully over a vulnerable individual, regardless of age, race, class, religion or sex. It impinges on the fundamental right to earn a livelihood by making it difficult to work
Sexual harassment includes unwelcome acts or behaviour like physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours or making sexually coloured remarks or showing pornography, other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature whether direct or by implication
THE PROPOSED LEGISLATION
Parliament on February 27, 2013, passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill. It provides for protection of women, including domestic helps and agricultural labourers, against sexual harassment at the workplace
The Bill makes it mandatory for all workplaces including homes, universities, hospitals, government and non-government offices, factories, other formal and informal workplaces to have an internal redressal mechanism for complaints related to sexual harassment
The in-house committee has to dispose of a complaint within 90 days
There will also be a safeguard against against false or malicious charges. If a woman is found to have filed a complaint with mala-fide intentions, she can be punished. Failure to prove charges, however, will not be construed as mala-fide intention