By Mihika Jindal:
“Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in very minutest detail in the activities of man and she has an equal right of freedom and liberty with him.”
– M K Gandhi, 1933
After years of being encapsulated in lifestyles and mindsets, compulsorily associating existence with men, women have now stepped forth to break the shackles of inequality and gender dominance to earn their own independent identity. It’s the era where women think themselves capable of shouldering the professional responsibility at par with men, which they are efficiently proving right. Having said so, the point to ponder upon is whether women being latest entrants in the working sphere will be welcomed or will they have to continue fighting this battle of gender inequality?
The sole reason for women facing sexual harassment and atrocities at the hands of men is societal notion of approaching the male gender as the superior sex and the foregoing insensitivity attached to it. Women have always been subservient to men, the reason why male culprits do not flinch a nerve before engaging in immoral and heinous acts of sexual violence. What more? A recent statement by an eminent politician veiled the acts by saying “boys make mistakes”. Women have been facing hurdles at workplaces and despite legislative provisions and reforms, we have seen an exponential rise in violence against women with little or no convictions, for the fear of reporting and saving oneself public and societal humiliation.
The legal provisions and law reforms for protecting women from sexual violence have always emerged from extreme situations of harassment and assault. In yesteryear, no weightage was accorded to sexual crimes and in unfortunate instances, the complainant was branded as a ‘vicious liar’, ‘habituated to sexual intercourse’ and whose failure to ‘resist’ implied consent to abuse. Such barbaric and irrational approach flipped in 1997, when the governing guidelines for protecting women at workplace were laid down in the landmark judgment of Vishakha vs. State of Rajasthan and Others, delivered under the efficient aegis of Hon’ble Justice J.S. Verma. It was in this case when Supreme Court explicitly defined ‘Sexual harassment’ for the first time, as an unwelcome sexual gesture or behavior whether directly or indirectly as, sexually coloured remarks, physical contact and advances, showing pornography, a demand or request for sexual favours, and any other unwelcome physical, verbal/non-verbal conduct being sexual in nature.
These guidelines covered women in governmental, private or organized sector who either drew regular salary, received an honorarium or worked voluntarily. It became incumbent on all organizations to incorporate policies to expressly prohibit sexual harassment and provide for appropriate remedies and penalties. The employment bodies had to provide congenial working environment in terms of security, leisure, health and hygiene in order to build an invulnerable working environment for men and women alike.
However, the need for judiciary stepping into the shoes of legislature laying down guidelines in Vishakaha case arose as the moot question in term of necessity. With Article 21 of the Constitution providing for right to life which includes right to live with dignity and Indian Penal Code encompassing various provisions to cover the criminal offences of rape, sexual harassment and assault with rigorous corporal punishments, there is a need to understand the necessity for formulating specific law for sexual harassment at workplace.
Sociologists and jurists believe that the prime reason for non-reporting of cases of sexual violence is lack of faith in the procedure, for our judicial procedure is lengthy and cumbersome, with delayed justice, if at all. With further victimization of victim in terms of trial, hearing, cross questioning et al and the constant fear of societal boycott, the conviction graph has never seen a rise in comparison with the graph showing the crime curve.
With reasons as stated and the rising rate of sexual crimes, there was a need to formulate a law to come to the aid of working women, providing for an efficient redressal mechanism. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 aims to be a holistic statute addressing all women employment issues.
The Act defines ‘sexual harassment at workplace’ in a comprehensive manner, keeping with the definition in Vishakha guidelines to cover circumstances of implied or explicit promise or threat to a woman’s employment prospects or creation of hostile work environment or humiliating treatment, which can affect her health or safety. ‘Aggrieved women’ who will get protection under the act is wide to include the organised or unorganised sectors, public or private and covers clients, customers and domestic workers as well.
It is unfortunate that Indian legislature waited this long before enacting a law on this most pressing issue. It is now imperative for legislature to enact the much awaited law ensuring implementation, for decaying faith is constantly giving rise to vulnerability of situation of women. There is a compulsive need to showcase the intention of protecting the women work force in the corporate sector to consider India as a true civilized society.