Hope for women at work

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 17.01.07

A couple of months ago, Alpana Roy (name changed), a professional in her mid-twenties, walked into office one morning and unsuspectingly tugged at her workstation drawer to receive the ugliest shock of her life. Someone had planted a pack of prophylactics in between pages of documents that she had neatly arranged in the drawer, in an obvious attempt to embarrass her when she came to work the next day. Roy was insulted, but nevertheless refrained from reporting the incident to the office management. Stoic as she was, she considered it one of those things that working women in India were expected to take in their stride.

Roy’s nonchalance, however, is ironically indicative of how common incidents of Indian women being harassed at work really are. Sexist comments, innuendos, racy SMSs, even the odd pat on the back — the ways vary, but the intent is almost always the same. And to top it all, Indian law is still not fully able to handle the issue, and will still not be, until the brand new Bill on sexual harassment finally gets the official nod.

Titled The Sexual Harassment of Women in Work Places (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2006, the new piece of legislation is currently being scrutinised. If and when the Ministry of Law and Justice clears it, the Bill will be tabled in Parliament — which effectively means it’s going to be a while before the Bill is finally notified. However, experts feel it might be worth the wait, since the Bill, once implemented, will come as a major legal relief to working women.

Talk about a law devoted to tackling sexual harassment at work began almost a decade ago, when in 1997 the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark guideline with respect to the Vishaka case, where a social worker was sexually assaulted by a group of powerful men in Rajasthan. While it outlined the issue of sexual harassment, the guideline also pressed for a formal law to deal with the matter in future.

A draft of the new Bill was duly drawn up by the National Commission for Women (NCW), in consultation with Lawyers’ Collective, a Delhi-based legal firm advocating women’s issues, and several other individuals and organisations. Following consultation at the national level in October 2005, a final draft of the Bill was drawn up, before being sent over to the Department of Women and Child Development, and subsequently to the law ministry.

Meticulously drafted, the Bill is an effort to provide legal relief to working women in the best of ways possible. And in that vein, it takes into consideration certain things that have been conventionally ignored in the past. One such aspect happens to be the unorganised sector — the Bill aims to check harassment in places such as tea estates, markets and construction sites with as much fervour as in the corporate sector.

It’s a step that’s long overdue,” says Sudha Sundararaman, secretary of the women’s group All India Democratic Women’s Alliance (AIDWA). “Research shows that the unorganised sector is where sexual harassment occurs the most, since employees there are more vulnerable and more dependent on their employers.”

A 2006 pilot survey, says Sundararaman, conducted by AIDWA in two slum areas in the vicinities of Delhi and Pune showed that almost 40 per cent of women working in the unorganised sector had been targets of harassments. “And since the sector is increasing in size with every given day, incidents of harassment are likely to go up as well, if not checked in time.”

Other highlights of the Bill include the power it gives to representatives of victims to file complaints, provisions to protect women who file cases of sexual harassment against victimisation, and a section spelling out the duties of employers in trying to ensure a healthy working environment. It also calls for the mandatory setting up of complaint committees in every organisation to deal with complaints of sexual harassment.

The importance of having internal complaint committees was earlier stressed by a labour ministry guideline, but experts say it has been largely ignored, especially in the private sector. “Till date, very few employers in the private sector have risen to the occasion and constituted committees within their own offices to deal with sexual harassment,” says Romi Sharma, undersecretary and spokesperson, NCW. “The new law will require them to be more responsive on that front.”

There is, of course, the odd glitch in the new Bill. The draft doesn’t, in particular, give attention to students in schools and colleges on the premises that they are not working women. “It’s something the government is currently looking into,” says Yogesh Mehta, law officer, NCW. Sharma, on the other hand, has a point. “While researching on the issue, we found that most schools and colleges had already instituted their own mechanisms to check harassment, so it perhaps didn’t call for directly addressing the issue in the Bill,” she says.

Despite all its high points, however, there are fears in some circles that once implemented, the new law might just be misused by a few to hold their employers to ransom. “There is a minor possibility to that effect,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research. “But since this is a relatively new issue, it will take some time to be comprehended well, and in the meantime, the courts will hopefully do their job in ensuring the law is not abused,” she adds.

A draft of the new Bill

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2006

Some important points:

1. The Bill provides room for women victims to claim compensation for harassment in the court of law.

2.The court, in deciding upon compensation, would have to take into account aspects such as mental trauma, loss of career opportunities, medical expenses and the financial status of the defendant.

3.The Bill makes it mandatory for employers to have internal complaints committees in their workplaces and lay down a clear policy regarding harassment.

4.The Bill also empowers trade unions, women’s or non-governmental organisations and co-employees to register cases on behalf of victims.