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Special law needed to curb sexual harassment at workplaces
Smita Sinha | 09 Apr 2014

Sexual harassment in a working place is an unacknowledged global phenomenon. As the cases involving the media and high places like judiciary came tumbling out of the closet, spotlight was thrown on a range of issues which were never debated before.

As debates raged on the urgent need to constitute internal committee and local committee as mandated by law for preventing sexual harassment at workplaces, some representatives of the political parties went to the extent of stating that organizations would stop employing women.

Sexual harassment at the workplace exists even where there are laws protecting everyone, including men, from it. A survey conducted by a law firm stated that one in eight women left job because sexual harassment at workplace made circumstances uncomfortable for them to work.

The same report also revealed that 40 per cent of men also reported similar experience of harassment and that 60 percent of women kept it within themselves. The reason for not complaining was the lack of decent employment and most of the perpetrators were much older and experienced and were in a position of authority over the complainants.

Though law calls for institutional mechanism to control sexual harassment, most of the organizations have been reluctant to set up it. The reason for not doing it ranges from lack of understanding of the importance of such a mechanism for women to groundless fear of law being misused.

It is a well-known fact that women who make complaints of sexual harassment, apart from losing their jobs, are accused of filing a false complaint. In rape cases one of the standard defenses is that the victim consented to the sexual act. And most of the time women naturally do not want to face the trauma of going through this process of blame and counter-blame which takes a long time to come to a conclusion due to the inevitable delay in justice.

The main issue which arose during the Tejpal’s case was why media houses had not set up internal committee in persuasion of Vishaka guidelines. The Vishaka guidelines directed by Supreme Court meant to provide additional civil remedies against the perpetrators of sexual harassment apart from the criminal proceedings which would apply if the act of sexual harassment amounted to an offence under the penal code. The absence of internal committees clearly shows that even after 1996 there has been no redress mechanism for women employees in several media houses.

The government also came under sharp criticism for not putting the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 in operation. The government had failed to act on this matter. The Act is at fault in many critical areas even though it makes it mandatory for the organization to constitute internal committee to look into all the sexual harassment cases in working places. The act also states a situation in which the perpetrator may also be an employer as in Tehelka and Justice A. K. Ganguly’s cases. The act also mandates that a local complaints committee be set up in every district to hear the complaints of sexual harassment against the employer and requires that at least 50 per cent membership should be of women. The sexual harassment act not only casts an obligation on the employer to provide assistance to a woman to file a complaint under the IPC, but also makes it a duty for the employer to cause to initiate action under IPC against the perpetrator.

Freedom from sexual harassment is a vital aspect of women’s right to a safe work environment. It is important to recognize that sexual harassment in the working place is not exclusively a women’s issue. It is an issue closely connected to freedom of expression in general.

And in order to inquire into complaint of sexual harassment of women at any place by anyone, a special criminal law must be enacted to deal with sexual harassment in working place delinking it from employment rules as was done in Tamil Nadu which enacted the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Harassment of Women Act, 1998 to deal with such kind of cases.