By Uzma Shamim:
The recent report released by the National Commission for Women states that there were 526 cases of sexual assault in 2014; 57 cases were registered at the office premises while 469 cases were registered at other places of work. These are only the numbers which saw the light of day while a considerable number of cases don’t get reported due to fear of stigma and further oppression by the assaulter.
In 1992, Bhanwari devi, a worker at the Women Development Programme in Bhateri, Rajasthan was gang raped by a group of landlords, allegedly, and the Rajasthan court had let the criminals go free. A women’s rights group named Vishaka filed a PIL at the Supreme Court of India as an opposition to this, which lead to the formation of the Vishaka Guidelines. The guidelines were introduced by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 to serve against sexual assault of women at workplace and provide them reprieve in case of any such incident. The guidelines were put into place till the time legislation was brought out on the same. According to the guidelines, sexual harassment would mean:
a) Physical contact and advances
b) A demand or request for sexual favours
c) Sexually coloured remarks
d) Showing pornography
e) Any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
Under the Vishaka Guidelines, it is the responsibility of the employer to maintain a safe working atmosphere for women and provide resolution, settlement or prosecution in cases of acts of sexual harassment. There should be a Grievance Redressal Mechanism in all companies, be it public or private under which an Internal Complaints Committee must be instituted headed by a woman and involving a third party with knowledge of sexual assault. However most workplaces still do not have an Internal Complaints Committee in place, as was made evident by the case involving Tarun Tejpal.
Most people do not believe that sexual harassment exists at their workplace and also perceive that these guidelines become a tool for women to jeopardise the career of men they have differences with. Hence the concept of Internal Complaints Committee often becomes an anxiety point for men. However, we need to understand that since the process involves a clear system of examining evidences, if it is found that the allegation was false, the woman faces the prosecution. Another obstacle in the effective functioning of ICCs is that often the people comprising the body are not trained enough. The Internal Complaints Committee requires people who are equipped to deal with cases of harassment with sensitivity and rationale. The process often requires language interpreters and people who are impartial and who respect the confidentiality of the complainant.
The Vishaka Guidelines were followed by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) in 2013 and it is this statute that has to be followed in cases of sexual assault at workplace though the guidelines are very much the same. Later that year, Tarun Tejpal, former editor-in-chief of Tehelka magazine, was accused of sexual assault by a young journalist working under him. Another, shocking case which came to light was on 18th February, 2015, when the Delhi Police registered an FIR, stating allegations of assault, sexual harassment, stalking and criminal intimidation, against RK Pachauri, Director General of TERI. The allegation was leveled by a research associate working under Pachauri. The texts and mails found in relation to this case point to a sickening tendency of stalking and harassment. These two cases are a clear manifestation of the fact that sexual harassment at workplaces is existent and if organisations in the organised sector as TERI and Tehelka are subject to it, it means that this evil must be rampant in the unorganised sector.
The reason we can exclaim shock and disdain at the above mentioned cases is because we know about them. Often, women are heavily dependent on their jobs for financial subsistence and thus cannot go against a sexual assaulter of higher authority fearing the loss of her job or worse, ‘dignity’. Sometimes families are not supportive and sometimes women have no authority to go to. It is absolutely necessary for all workplaces to comply with the tenets of the Vishaka Guidelines to ensure a safe working environment for its women, and have an Internal Complaints Committee in place because that is the only way through which women would be able to raise their voice against sexual harassment without any fear or apprehension. The ICC goes a big way in ensuring that by reporting and investigating cases of sexual assault at workplace, we are making sure that women are getting justice and further deterring such heinous acts. The young woman who accused Pachauri of sexual assault recently stated-“The fight continues, as do efforts to break me. What it cannot break are my spirits.”