As more and more women are going out to work, they face an increasing risk of being subjected to some sort of sexual harassment. This article will shed some light on what exactly sexual harassment means and what recourses does a victim have?

Sexual harassment at the workplace is not a new thing. Sixty per cent of working women have faced sexual harassment at some point of time in their working lives. For every woman who raises an outcry, there are hundreds of others who suffer in silence, quit their jobs or get transfers. For years, sexual harassment was considered an inescapable part of a working woman's life. Now awareness is slowly rising that no woman should meekly accept sexual harassment as part of her lot.

What is sexual harassment?
What is the workplace?
Some of the well-known cases?
What are the guidelines that govern sexual harassment at the workplace? How have the guidelines come about?
What is the employer's responsibility?
What can women do?

What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is described as harassment in subtle ways, which may include sexual innuendoes, inappropriate sexual gestures and propositions for dates or sexual favours. In more blatant forms, such harassment may include leering, pinching, grabbing, hugging, patting, brushing against and touching. The Supreme Court's guidelines describe physical contact or advances; demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks and showing pornography as offensive conduct. Sexual harassment becomes even more serious when the granting of sexual favours is made a term or condition of the individual's employment, when it interferes with the individual's work performance or it creates an intimidating or hostile work environment. The offensive conduct could be exhibited by a superior, a colleague, a subordinate or a client.

What is the workplace?
The workplace is any area where the employee is required to represent, carry out, perform or implement any duties, obligations or services required. By this token, a home would be a workplace for a domestic maid. For a person engaged in a field job, the area that she covers in the course of her work represents her workplace.

Some of the well-known cases
Sexual harassment at the workplace, as an issue, captured the collective consciousness of working women, following the Shehnaz Mudbhatkal case. This gutsy woman worked as a hostess for Saudi Arabian airlines. Her services with Saudi Arabian airlines were terminated because she refused to surrender to the sexual demands made by her superior. But Shehnaz would not give in. Filing suit, she fought for 11 years. In 1997, she was awarded full wages and continuity of services with effect from 1985. Sadly, the airlines appealed to Bombay High Court, which granted a stay.

However, this is not the only case of its kind. In 1994, Doordarshan (Hyderabad) producer Sailaja Suman took director P L Chawla to court on charges of defamation, criminal intimidation and trying to outrage her modesty. She filed two separate cases in the metropolitan magistrate's court. Unfortunately, Suman was transferred to Lucknow.

In another case, Nutan Sharma, a steno in the Union Ministry of Railways, was transferred, following her complaint that R P Sharma, secretary to the Chief Operating Manager, molested her.

Alisha Chinai's
suit against music composer Anu Malik, demanding Rs. 26,60,000 as damages for sexual harassment, met with a similar fate. Malik filed a Rs. 2 crore defamation suit. But the most well-known instance of a sexually harassed woman taking the help of the law to teach the harasser a lesson is that of Rupan Deol Bajaj. Bajaj was slapped on the bottom by the then DGP of Punjab, K P S Gill. Accusing him of indecent behaviour, Bajaj fought an 8-year legal battle. The hard work paid off. Gill was convicted and sentenced to three months RI.

What are the guidelines that govern sexual harassment at the workplace?
Sexual harassment results in the violation of the fundamental right to "gender equality" and "the right to life and liberty" besides the right under Article 15 of the Constitution (which deals with the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, creed or sex). Keeping these rights in mind, the Supreme Court has passed twelve guidelines that have the force of law. They were taken by a division bench as there was "an absence of enacted law to provide for the effective enforcement of the basic human right of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment at the workplace." These guidelines are to be observed until legislation is enacted.

Some of these guidelines are:

  • "It shall be the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in the workplace or other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedure for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts of sexual harassment."

  • "The employer should initiate action in accordance with the law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority. Victims should have an option to seek their own transfer or that of the perpetrator."

  • "A complaint mechanism should be created in the organisation. This complaint mechanism should ensure time-bound treatment of complaints. The complaints committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its members should be women. In order to prevent the possibility of undue pressure or influence from senior levels, a third party, especially a NGO familiar with sexual harassment, should be involved in the complaints committee."

  • "The committee must submit an annual report to the government. Employees must be allowed to raise the issue of sexual harassment at various fora."

  • The guidelines also provide for the initiation of criminal proceedings where sexual harassment is proved beyond doubt.

How did the guidelines come about?
When Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped as a punishment for trying to stop child marriage, women's organisations filed a writ in the Supreme Court to intervene in the matter and take steps to discourage and penalise sexual harassment at the workplace. In the wake of this incident, the Supreme Court issued guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case revealed the hazards to which a working woman is exposed and the depravity to which sexual harassment can stoop.

What is the employer's responsibility?
The employer is responsible for creating appropriate working conditions for health, work, leisure and hygiene. When the victim complains to the employer, the onus is on the employer to make appropriate investigations. If the employer does not pay heed to the complaint, he can be held responsible. The employer must set up a complaint mechanism in each department of the company. The Supreme Court's guidelines are binding on Central and State governments and the private and public sector. If the employer does not comply, he has to face a writ petition for contempt of court.

What can women do?
As women, we can make it easier for ourselves.

  • We must shed our mentality of tolerance. We have to stop telling ourselves that this kind of behaviour on the part of men is inevitable and unavoidable.
  • Express strong resistance the first time it occurs. If you allow the action to take place without expressing your strongest disapproval, the offender will assume that he has your consent.

  • Don't encourage males to behave unbecomingly with you or try to attract their undue attention. At all times, maintain your own self-respect.

  • Dress in a manner that befits a work environment.

  • In case someone behaves with you in a manner that makes you feel uncomfortable, protest loudly and at once. Let others know that such conduct has been meted out to you.

  • Keep safe distance from the offending party.

  • Register a First Information Report with the police station.

    As more and more women join the workforce, the law must ensure that women are able to enjoy the rights promised to them by the Constitution. We must ensure that they are treated with dignity and assured of gender equality and that they are not discriminated against on account of their sex. Considering that until retirement, we spend a little less than two-thirds of our lives working, we must take pains to ensure that we spend it in a dignified and productive manner.

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