Awareness to legal recourse in incidents of sexual harassment at workplace are alarmingly lacking among women.
Majority of women are ignorant of the judgement in the Vishaka case, passed in 1997, that not only defines sexual harassment at the workplace but also lays down guidelines for its prevention and disciplinary action against the erring employee.
Supreme Court's interpretation of harassment
In the Vishaka case, the Supreme Court of India has included a gamut of behavioural aspects into what constitutes "Sexual Harassment".
In its decision in Vishaka v State of Rajasthan (1997) the apex court determined that sexual harassment is not confined to instances of rape or assault.
Instead, it can include "such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature."
Supreme Court's guidelines
In fact, in an all-India survey carried out by the NGO `Sakshi', the results of which are in the final stage of preparation, while 80 per cent of the woman respondents confirmed sexual harassment existed at their workplace, a mere 23 per cent said they were aware of the Vishaka guidelines whereby, "The Supreme Court judgement laid down guidelines, prohibiting sexual harassment, which are legally binding and must be enforced."
1 One of the guidelines makes it incumbent upon the employer to include a prohibition against sexual harassment in their rules of conduct and discipline for employees;
2 Establish a complaint committee, headed preferably by women, and with at least half of its members being women.
3 Initiate disciplinary proceedings and possible criminal action against any violators; and ensure that harassed women are not further victimized.
Employers abstain from a proactive role
The study was carried out on a cross-section of workplaces including private, public and the unorganised sectors and had a sample size of 2400. "It is clear that ignorance of the sexual harassment law is high," says K Geeta of Sakshi, adding, it is the absence of employers taking a proactive role in implementing the Vishaka Judgement that is to blame.
"The spirit of the guidelines lies in its clause on prevention, but in most organisations a 'complaints committee' is set up only once a case is reported. No wonder women employees remain unaware of the law," explains Geeta.
In the survey, only 20 per cent of the respondents said that the guidelines had been adopted by the organisation they worked for. "The study shows that establishment of the complaints committee is nominal and third party/NGO participation asked for by the judgement is severely limited," says Geeta.
Employer's intimation is imperative
Moreover, it is for the employer to notify employees of the prohibition of sexual harassment and in doing so educate them of the Vishaka Judgement, but that is obviously not happening, says Leena Menghaney of Human Rights Law Networks (HRLN).
The Judgement states: "Guidelines should be prominently notified to create awareness of the rights of female employees".
Ironically, says Menghaney, the Vishaka Judgement is one of the most lucid legal texts. "It is easy to understand. You don't need much knowledge of legalese to read it," she says, adding, "Moreover, it is such a brief ruling. Reading it should not take more than five minutes."
Vishaka guidelines are the only legal succour
The Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment lay down the law, says Sonal Marwa, who runs the NGO Helping Hands, which offers free legal counselling to women. "There is no legislation as such to deal with sexual harassment, and hence the Vishaka Guidelines are the only legal succour for working women facing sexual harassment," says Marwa.
"Even today, there are very few companies that have implemented the judgement. One could cite the Park Hotel and CBSE as organisations that have followed the guidelines, but there are not many more examples," says Menghaney.
Private sector yet to implement Vishaka guidelines
Implementation of the guidelines is higher in public sector enterprises than in private organisations, says Priya Narula of HRLN. But in majority of the public sector companies, setting up of the complaints committee is a mere formality, says Narula. It is done only to satisfy the Women and Child department of the government, to which they are required to submit a report on the status of implementation of the Supreme Court ruling.
"The complaints committee in these companies is a hurriedly set up body, with not much thought going into its the composition," she says. Even when women are aware of their legal rights against sexual harassment, they are hesitant in exercising them, states Narula. "It is the uncooperative nature of the organisation the women are working for as well as pressure from the family, which feels publicising the matter can bring a bad name to it, that keep women from taking action," she says.
In the one year since a telephonic help line for victims of sexual harassment, `Madhyam' was launched, only 100 women called, many of them being just one-time callers who did not take proceedings to the logical end.