Sexual Harassment at Work Place’ As enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution of India, “equality of status and opportunity” must be secured for all its citizens; equality of every person under the law is guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution. A safe workplace is therefore a woman’s legal right. Indeed, the Constitutional doctrine of equality and personal liberty is contained in Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. Sexual harassment constitutes a gross violation of women’s right to equality and dignity. It has its roots in patriarchy and its attendant perception that men are superior to women and that some forms of violence against women are acceptable. One of these is workplace sexual harassment, which views various forms of such harassment, as harmless and trivial.
Often, it is excused as ‘natural’ male behaviour or ‘harmless flirtation’ which women enjoy. Contrary to these perceptions, it causes serious harm and is also a strong manifestation of sex discrimination at the workplace. Not only is it an infringement of the fundamental rights of a woman, under Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution of India “to practice any profession or to carry out any occupation, trade or business”; it erodes equality and puts the dignity and the physical and psychological well-being of workers at risk. This leads to poor productivity and a negative impact on lives and livelihoods. To further compound the matter, deep-rooted socio-cultural behavioural patterns, which create a gender hierarchy, tend to place responsibility on the victim, thereby increasing inequality in the workplace and in the society at large. Though sexual harassment at the workplace has assumed serious proportions, women do not report the matter to the concerned authorities in most cases due to fear of reprisal from the harasser, losing one’s livelihood, being stigmatized, or losing professional standing and personal reputation. Across the globe today, workplace sexual harassment is increasingly understood as a violation of women’s rights and a form of violence against women.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was enacted to ensure safe working spaces for women and to build enabling work environments that respect women’s right to equality of status and opportunity. An effective implementation of the Act will contribute to the realization of their right to gender equality, life and liberty, equality in working conditions everywhere. The sense of security at the workplace will improve women’s participation in work, resulting in their economic empowerment and inclusive growth.
A Review of the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment At Workplace Bill, 2007
As mentioned in the preceding section, the Court in the Vishaka case had stepped into the law-making domain and suggested that in the absence of a law against sexual harassment, the guidelines suggested by the Court would be considered as the law. The Court, however, also called for a legislation prohibiting sexual harassment to replace its injunctions subsequently. The Court ruled in the Vishaka case in 1999. Since then there have been demands for legislation on sexual harassment and several attempts at drafting and presenting a bill have been made. The Bill also provides space for third-party harassment. Third-party harassment implies that the perpetrator is not the employer or colleague; an outsider, like a client or customer who comes in contact with the woman at the workplace or in relation to the workplace.
In 1992, a rural level change agent, Bhanwari Devi, was engaged by the state of Rajasthan as a Sathin to work towards the prevention of the practice of child marriages. During the course of her work, she prevented the marriage of a one-year old girl in the community. Her work was met with resentment and attracted harassment from men of that community. Bhanwari Devi reported this to the local authority but no action was taken. That omission came at great cost – Bhanwari was subsequently gang raped by those very men. The Bhanwari Devi case revealed the ever-present sexual harm to which millions of working women are exposed across the country, everywhere and everyday irrespective of their location. It also shows the extent to which that harm can escalate if nothing is done to check sexually offensive behaviour in the workplace.
Based on the facts of Bhanwari Devi’s case, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by Vishaka and other women groups against the State of Rajasthan and Union of India before the Supreme Court of India. It proposed that sexual harassment be recognized as a violation of women`s fundamental right to equality and that all workplaces/establishments/institutions be made accountable and responsible to uphold these rights.
In a landmark judgment, Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan (1997), The Supreme Court of India created legally binding guidelines basing it on the right to equality and dignity accorded under the Indian Constitution as well as by the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
A definition of sexual harassment
Shifting accountability from individuals to institutions
Provision of an innovative redress mechanism
The Supreme Court defined sexual harassment as any unwelcome, sexually determined physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct. Examples included sexually suggestive remarks about women, demands for sexual favors, and sexually offensive visuals in the workplace. The definition also covered situations where a woman could be disadvantaged in her workplace as a result of threats relating to employment decisions that could negatively affect her working life.