The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Harassment Bill stuck on a word

New Delhi, April 3: Women’s groups are unhappy with the Bill drafted by the National Commission for Women to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and have demanded changes.

The definition of sexual harassment in the Bill as “any avoidable” sexual advance, either verbal or physical, is the main point of dispute.

“What does avoidable mean'” asked Indu Agnihotri of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association.

Participants at a meeting to discuss the Bill, called by the women’s commission, stressed that the definition should be wide enough to plug any loophole that can be used by the guilty. They demanded deletion of the word “avoidable” from the definition.

The activists pointed out that the draft Bill was not in consonance with the Supreme Court’s 1997 Vishakha judgment, which defined sexual harassment in the workplace and laid down guidelines to prevent it.

“Since July 2001, all women’s groups have been sending their observations to the National Commission for Women on the proposed Bill. But when the draft was placed before us, we discovered that it had ignored all of our observations,” added Kalpana Mehta from Jagori.

All the participants focused on the Vishakha judgement, which had made it compulsory for organisations to have grievance cells to hear complaints of sexual harassment, as a necessary reference point for the new Bill.

“We should not in any way dilute the Vishakha judgment,” Agnihotri stressed.

The draft Bill proposes a punishment of simple imprisonment, which could extend to 5 years, or a fine of up to Rs 20,000 or both.

Women’s activists pointed out that the Bill made no reference either to the “ambience” at the workplace or steps to prevent sexual harassment.

Another point of contention was the different mechanisms of dealing with complaints. The draft Bill talks about a complaints committee, district-level officers and special officers. “This is creating a lot of confusion. It is not clear how these mechanisms will function side by side,” the participants said.

Panel chairperson Poornima Advani said this was a only “raw” draft and the final draft would reflect a common approach. A drafting committee, including some women’s activists, was set up at the end of the meeting to thrash out the differences and put in place a Bill that would be more acceptable.

The participants had made the point that the Bill should not end up like the Domestic Violence Bill, which is a far cry from what the women’s groups had wanted.

Organisations like the Lawyer’s Collective, which had played a pioneering role in drafting the Bill, have said it is better not to have a Bill against domestic violence than to have it in the present form.

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