Be aware of what sexual harassment is and the related policies
The Supreme Court’s Vishakha Judgement of 1997 is now seen as a landmark in legal guidelines for cases of sexual harassment at the workplace. This judgement was delivered after Bhanwari Devi a development worker in a Rajasthan state run programme tried to take a stand against child marriage and was gang raped by members of the Gujjar community for her interference. In response to a petition by women’s groups after this, the Supreme Court laid down that, “each incidence of sexual harassment of women at workplace results in violation of the fundamental rights gender equality and the right to life and liberty.
While highlighting the significance of the Vishakha Judgement, Delhi-based lawyer Aparna Bhat, points out that since there’s no law yet in India on sexual harassment at the workplace, the Supreme Court’s guidance provide the only guidelines on how such cases need to be dealt with. “However, though these guidelines are effective in dealing with cases of sexual harassment in the public sector and governmental organisations, in the case of the private sector a lot of grey areas remain. For private organizations having committees to look into cases on sexual harassment at the workplace is voluntary. Often there is lack of knowledge and awareness within the organization on such committees and policies even if they exist,” she says.
The lack of awareness on guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace is a common complaint of women in various organizations—both private and public sector. “Organisations need to have a briefing session for new recruits - both male and female—on a code of conduct in the workplace. This will set the tone for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. There should be avenues for addressing complaints, checking on their veracity and for taking quick remedial action thereafter,” says Poornima Shenoy, president, India Semiconductor Association.
Besides a better legal framework, the need for women in senior positions to become champions for safety and security at the workplace is also necessary. “Legal provisions are necessary but not sufficient to address this issue. Until there are senior women in executive positions who can be role models and who are able to participate in defining recognition and resolution of such cases, women who are being harassed are unlikely to bring the cases to light,” says Gita Dang, founder director of HR consultancy Talent Advisory services.
With a larger number of women in India joining the workforce in different industry segments the definition of sexual harassment, too, is changing. The high-tech face of sexual harassment, for instance, is now having an impact on Indian offices. The women in the BPO industry have their own set of issues. In 2007, after a huge outcry from women’s organisations and the state women’s commission, the Karnataka government withdrew a controversial notification banning night shift for women employees. “The fact that sexual harassment is seen as a human rights violation is a positive step in the right direction.
It is also important that the employer is accountable for the safety of women at the workplace, following the Vishakha Judgement,” says Soma Sengupta, the founding director of Sanhita, an NGO that works as a resource centre on issues of sexual harassment of women at the workplace in eastern India. It also runs a helpline for women who are victims of such harassment. “We have women from all walks of life contacting us on the helpline with various kinds of problems. Such cases are on the increase these days,” Ms Sengupta adds.