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Two Years On, Has The Sexual Harassment Of Women At Workplace Act Done Any Good In India?

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By Anjana Radhakrishnan:

computer-1185637_960_720In the wake of the mishandling of the Pachauri case and Arun Jaitley’s revealing remarks to Maneka Gandhi’s request for greater transparency, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (SHWW) Act has recently come under close scrutiny. In the sixteen years since the passing down of the Vishakha Guidelines and the two years since the enactment of SHWW, little meaningful progress has been made in making workplaces safer and less hostile towards women.

This past week, Sakhi, a women’s resource centre based in Thiruvananthapuram, organised training for the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and Local Complaints Committee (LCC) members in Kerala. The SHWW Act sets up the two for filing sexual harassment complaints; ICCs are formed within businesses with ten or more employees while LCCs deal with complaints from the unorganised sector as well as from those businesses with less than ten employees.

While some companies and districts in Kerala have formed ICCs and LCCs, there has been much confusion in jurisdictions, procedures, and distinctions between ICCs and LCCs, arising particularly with the question of how to deal with the unorganised sector. While ICCs have direct jurisdiction over offenders and can easily implement corrective action, LCCs have a much harder time as the ‘workplace’ for unorganised workers is often more nebulous than the four walls of an office or the inside of an official car. Attendees at the session reported that all LCCs in the state of Kerala, and much of India, are non-functioning, a problem that rests on the perceived lack of urgency and that serves as a signal of the problematic structure of LCCs themselves.

On the ground, very few workers are even aware of the SHWW Act, resulting in the low number of complaints filed. Training Officer Madhu Mehra stressed the importance of preventive work to the success of this Act. Mehra emphasised the need for training sessions and workshops to be organised not only for all employees but for ICC and LCC members themselves. Safe work environments for women cannot be created otherwise, she stated. However, very little preventive work can be carried out without access to funds and current ICC/LCC members have found it difficult to obtain funds from companies and the government despite provisions in the law.

The problems with the SHWW Act, however, start well before issues with implementation. Hastily drafted, there are significant oversights and incomplete portions in the law. It is also a non-inclusive act – men can be subjected to sexual harassment at the workplace as well, as well as transgender and transsexual people. Additionally, the remunerative amount set for the attendance of an external member – often a respected member of women’s groups – is set at a humiliatingly low Rs. 200 per meeting, making it difficult to find experts who will commit time and energy to implement this act.

Perhaps the Act’s most egregious oversight is the lack of an appellate authority that can handle these administrative proceedings, leading to several cases where matters are handled within the company but respondents who wish to appeal take cases to the High Court. Additionally, though the Act was passed with the help of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the implementation of the Act falls under the responsibilities of the Labour Department. As such, there is no strong ownership of the Act. These confusions in implementation further muddy and degrade the powers of ICCs and LCCs, turning women away from reporting cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The most unfortunate is the wasted potential of the law. Under its provisions, LCCs and ICCs have the opportunity and ability to educate the Indian workforce, to create awareness and a safer workplace for women all over the country. In doing so, the act not only benefits the everyday woman worker, it benefits the employer and the greater economy as well by increasing productivity and tapping into a vast source of human capital.

A study conducted for the International Labour Organization found that sexual harassment and hostile work environments were the most common reason women exited the workforce in Uttar Pradesh. While state-specific, the findings doubtlessly apply to many other Indian states which still fail to provide adequate sanitation and protection services for its female workers. In turn, this represents a significant loss of labor and human capital to the Indian economy.

It is interesting to note the gender profiles of training sessions such as the one held in Thiruvananthapuram this past week. Of the 68 attendees, only 10 percent of the attendees were male. In striking contrast, 95 percent of senior corporate leadership posts in India, the positions that are integral to the proper implementation of the SHWW Act, are held by males. This signals the deeply dichotomous state of women’s rights in India. Until men begin to understand the very real issues facing women in the workplace and the economic consequences of failing to provide redress, the road ahead will remain extremely difficult and a drain on the average, everyday working woman. There needs to be a greater dialogue, not only between men and women in India but between men and women the world over – between individuals of different races, creeds, castes, backgrounds.

This isn’t ‘just a women’s issue’; it’s a labor issue. Acts like the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act have created opportunities to build these spaces, to jumpstart these dialogues, to provide redress for victims. It’s a shame to watch such opportunities so openly go to waste.

Also read After 2 Years Of Sexual Harassment At The NGO I Worked For, An Apology E-mail Is All I Got and, If You’ve Ever Faced Or Witnessed Sexual Violence, These Are 8 Points About Reporting It.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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