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Misuse rider in harassment law

May 18: A proposed law to protect women from sexual harassment at the workplace may also punish women employees who are found by an office panel to have misused the legislation.

The Centre has added a controversial clause to the draft Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention) Bill aimed at checking misuse, which women’s rights activists fear may deter women from using the law at all.

The clause was added after the government was bombarded by letters and email from men worried at the proposed law, women and child development ministry officials said.

“The fear that most of these letters and email indicated was one of the law being misused by a woman employee against a fellow worker to settle scores,” an official said. “To an extent, the concern is justified. So we have included the clause checking misuse.”

The bill is to be sent to the cabinet soon, and is likely to be tabled in Parliament sometime this year, sources said. It is now awaiting final approval from Renuka Chowdhury, minister for women and child development.

Under the draft bill, each employer needs to set up a complaints committee. For the unorganised sector, the district magistrate (DM) is responsible for setting up a “local committee” in each block. The DM stays in charge of all the local committees in his district.

The new clause says: “Where the committee or the local committee... arrives at a conclusion that the allegation against the respondent is false or malicious, or the aggrieved woman or any other person making the complaint has produced any forged or misleading document, it may recommend... action against the woman or the person who has made the complaint.”

The punishment, the clause goes on to say, may be in “accordance with the provisions of the service rules applicable”. It could be a fine, a transfer or even the sack, ministry officials explained.

But the new clause may effectively leave the law toothless, women’s rights activists say. “If the government plans to introduce such a clause, then it may as well not bring in the law at all. This clause is likely to be misused by employers to target women who complain about sexual harassment,” publisher and activist Urvashi Butalia said.

Butalia called the government’s move “outrageous and regressive”.

“Every law, including the one against murder, can be misused. Yet, somehow the complaints of misuse only crop up concerning laws protecting women,” she said.

A senior official of Women Power Connect (WPC), an organisation that helped the government draft the bill, said such a clause may deter women from using the legislation. The official, who requested anonymity, said she would seek an explanation from the minister on the clause.

“Every law needs to be checked against misuse. But if the same committee which decides on the woman’s complaint is also responsible for deciding whether she should be punished, it may lead to problems,” the WPC official said.

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