As national conscience acknowledges the long-standing problem of hostile workspaces for women, it is time to closely examine the legislative framework in place to protect a women’s fundamental right to work with dignity. It has been over a decade since the Supreme Court guidelines in the landmark judgment Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan and others, established the responsibility of employers and persons of authority to delineate a complaints and redressal mechanism to ensure accurate and timely reporting of incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace. After 16 years, Parliament passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 “the Act”. While the Act has to some extent clarified the definition and broadened the ambit of what a workplace constitutes, we must address the systemic failure of legal remedies and social support systems in addressing complex issues that arise from incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment of women, and the gross non-implementation of the provisions of the Act by the state. In January 2018, Supreme Court in a Public Interest Litigation filed before it, was constrained to call on multiple State Governments to implement the provisions of the Act, including the setting up of a Local Complaints Committee (LCC) in each district.
We acknowledge that the Law as of today does not provide adequate safeguards to protect a survivor of sexual harassment against the social and professional sanctions imposed on her once she decides to report an incident of sexual harassment. The Law further fails in its objective to ensure that a survivor of sexual harassment is protected against intimidation in the form of defamation cases that are strategically used to disempower and deter a survivor who takes the step to report a case of sexual harassment. While the Vishaka Judgement did not contemplate a limitation period within which a complaint ought to have been filed, the Act reflects the patriarchal notions of justice in mandating that a complaint ought to be filed within 3 months of the incident or at the latest within 6 months of the incident, if the aggrieved women can justify the delay in the filing of the complaint. This restriction does not cater to the interests of the women as Parliament has failed to acknowledge the lasting psychological impact that a traumatic incident of sexual harassment can have on a survivor of sexual harassment. This is more so important in the light of the number of cases that go unreported and the number of offenders who face no consequences for their misconduct. It is our responsibility as members of a healthy society to strive to create an equal, gender empowering society and community, which harbours a safe environment for all members to live a life of dignity and to work with dignity.
It is in this interest that we urge all organisations with more than 10 members to constitute an Internal Complaints (IC) Committee and urge organisations with lesser than 10 members to inform their employees of the Local Complaint Committee constituted / to be constituted in each District.
The recent social-media movement or the ‘#Metoo campaign’ in an Indian context effectively began in the year 2017 and has since opened up issues of sexual harassment to the public gaze. This movement has made it accessible for women to speak publicly about incidents of sexual harassment. The first phase called out numerous academicians and professors for having abused their positions of power for many years. The current phase of the movement has led to several media personalities, journalists and persons in the NGO and development sector being investigated for misconduct and sexual harassment.
We acknowledge that this is a significant movement as social media has facilitated and empowered women to speak openly (even anonymously) on social platforms. The movement is significant for it urges us as a society to take stock of how effective the law and intended ‘due process’ is in addressing issues of women’s safety and health at the workplace. It is clear that many women have chosen to exercise their freedom of expression to inform society, peers, and colleagues of the prevalent culture of sexual misconduct and abuse of power by persons in a position of authority or otherwise. These women have chosen to speak despite the social and professional consequences faced by them and their families.
PUCL extends its support to all persons who have taken the step to come out with their personal and truthful accounts of sexual harassment. We acknowledge that to speak out and share these experiences is hard and that the backlash faced by these persons sometimes leads to further harassment.
We are committed to protecting the civil rights and liberties of all individuals and have zero tolerance towards sexual misconduct of any kind. We are also committed to finding solutions to social problems faced by the community.
We extend our support and would like to intimate any persons who are keen on pursuing any remedies that PUCL if approached, would guide and support to our best ability.
Convenor, Ad-Hoc Committee,
People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Maharashtra