By Nidhi Khurana:
Marred by much disruptions and adjournments, the Parliament finally passed the bill on sexual harassment on 26th February, 2013. A great step indeed, but many social activists have shown disappointment with the way the legislation has come about.
The Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Bill 2012 makes it obligatory for hospitals, offices, institutions and other workplaces to have an internal redressal mechanism to handle complaints related to sexual harassment. Stringent punishments and penalties would be imposed against the offenders within a 90-day time frame. Domestic helpers too are protected by this bill.
Yes, the formation of an internal committee does sound interesting as the bill calls for formation of a four member committee of which one member should hail from some NGO working on sexual harassment or “committed to the cause of women”. That is quite innovative indeed, but then what about the other three members? They are supposed to be from the same organization or office (preferably women), meaning that they would not be specialists and would be without any prior knowledge that would help them in the verdict. How would they decide? This is much like asking an English teacher to teach French. Isn’t it? Unfortunately, there is a chance that the decision or the verdict given by the committee might not be entirely just.
Perhaps, the most disturbing and polemic provision in the law is the provision that seeks to punish the complainant in case of “false charges”. Having to live with suppression in all walks of life, women always choose to stay silent, whether it is in the domestic sphere or the workplace. Such a provision will further suppress her wish to raise her voice against any gender injustice done to her. However, keeping in mind some of the case studies in the past, there is a possibility that females can also misuse this law. The legislation in that way is gender neutral. But few feminists have expressed ire, they say that until and unless more female-oriented laws are passed, gender equality cannot be brought.
‘Conciliation’ as an option to settle sexual harassment case is another area that has gained a large hue and cry. As per the Bill, it is only upon refusal to reconcile or non-fulfilment of the terms of the settlement, that an inquiry would be initiated — a provision that stands in direct contradiction to the spirit of the Vishaka judgement. Those guidelines invested employers with the duty to provide an official and public hearing in such cases, for it is by the virtue of these steps that the sexual harassment cases would come to the forefront. But it does not seem that the spirit of the law can be affirmed anymore.
The bill has certain other flaws too, for instance, it excludes the universities and educational institutions as ‘places of work’. In a lot of campuses, sexual harassment cases have often been reported. Though few universities do have their discrete sexual harassment committees and forums, but that doesn’t mean that they are to be excluded from any law that is supposed to touch the nation universally.
Of course, the loopholes in the law need to be taken more seriously but before anything else the concern is for the law to be perfectly implemented. Already, we have more than 48 laws to safeguard the interests of women, but the implementation remains far from the reality.