Sexual harassment: Multiplexing of challenges for women

Women in India which constitute 48.5 percent of the total population (48.1 percent urban and 48.6 percent rural) according to the Census 2011, are facing a serious challenge of a hostile working environment characterised by pervasive sexual harassment. Apart from various socio-cultural implications, it has been a major contributing factor for a decrease in the women labour force participation in India. According to a study conducted in April 2016 by India Spend (founded in 2011, it is the country’s first data journalism initiative which utilises open data to analyse a range of issues with the broader objective of fostering better governance, transparency and accountability in the Indian government.), only 27{c2bbcdfefa7cf399a86b5f5abe93e020d0a8f945fdf3f010891e938b11f34431} Indian women are currently in the labour force. Within South Asia in 2013, India had the lowest rate of female employment after Pakistan. Similarly, the World Bank also reported in April 2017 that in over two decades preceding 2013, female labour force participation in India fell from 34.8 percent to 27 percent.

According to the World Bank, India’s female labour force participation rate is highest among illiterates and college graduates in both rural and urban areas. These two groups, illiterates and those with college education, are also the groups that experienced the largest drops in the participation rates between 2004-05 and 2011-12. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), cases of sexual harassment within office premises more than doubled between 2014 and 2015. The Bureau also says that there has also been a 51 percent rise in sexual harassment cases at other places related to work from 469 in 2014 to 714 in 2015. On the other hand, the National Commission for Women (NCW) reported that between 2013 and 2014 there was a 35 percent increase in complaints.

Under Section 2(n) of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the term ‘sexual harassment’ includes any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication) namely:- {i) physical contact and advances; or (ii) a demand or request for sexual favours; or (iii) making sexually coloured remarks; or (iv) showing pornography; or (v) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. This law retains the essence of the guidelines given by the Supreme Court in Visakha v. State of Rajasthan AIR 1997 SC 3011(popularly known as Visakha Guidelines). According to the Court, the employer (and/or other responsible people in a workplace) was duty-bound to prevent or deter sexual harassment, to set up processes to resolve, settle or prosecute in such cases, to support employees even when a third party was responsible for harassment, and to sensitise female employees to their rights and the guidelines. These guidelines also decreed the setting up of a complaints committee, and a special counsellor or other support services, assuring confidentiality. This committee would be headed by a woman, have women as at least half its members, and, to pre-empt any undue pressure from senior levels, include a third party such as an NGO familiar with the challenges of sexual harassment. The law passed drew its inspiration from these guidelines. It widens the scope and extent of the concept and the protective measures. Under section 3 (2) it says that the following circumstances, among other circumstances, if it occurs or is present in relation to or connected with any act or behaviour of sexual harassment may amount to sexual harassment- (i) implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in her employment: or (ii) implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in her employment; or (iii) implied or explicit threat about her present or future employment status: or (iv) interference with her work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment for her; or (v) humiliating treatment likely to affect her health or safety. The Act also widens the definition of ‘aggrieved woman’ to include all women, irrespective of age and employment status, and it covers clients, customers and domestic workers. The Act under section 2(o) defines ‘workplace’ which includes · (i) any department, organisation, undertaking, establishment, enterprise, institution, office, branch or unit which is established, owned, controlled or wholly or substantially financed by funds provided directly or indirectly by the appropriate Government or the local authority or a Government company or a corporation or a co-operative society; (ii) any private sector organisation or a private venture, undertaking, enterprise, institution, establishment, society, trust, non-governmental organisation, unit or service provider carrying on commercial, professional, vocational, educational, entertainmental, industrial, health services or financial activities including production, supply, sale, distribution or service; (iii) hospitals or nursing homes; (iv) any sports institute, stadium, sports complex or competition or games venue. whether residential or not used for training, sports or other activities relating thereto: (v) any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment including transportation provided by the employer for undertaking such journey; (vi) a dwelling place or a house. The law mandates the constitution of the internal complaint committee (ICC) and the states the action to be taken if an ICC is not informed and the filing of an audit report of the number of complaints and action taken at the end of the year. Very importantly, it lists the duties of the employer, like organising regular workshops and awareness programmes to educate employees about the Act and conducting orientation programmes for members of the ICC. If the employer fails to constitute an ICC, or does not abide by any other provision, they must pay a fine up to Rs. 50,000.

If the employer has been previously convicted of an offence under the Act, he shall be convicted for twice the punishment, and the second offence can also lead to cancellation or non-renewal of his licence.

The provisions of the Act definitely very stringent and the facts and figures as cited above give a different scenario in which women are continuously being harassed sexually at workplaces or elsewhere reflecting a mindset of gender bias and an attitude of attacking the modesty of women. It is also to be mentioned here that the Indian Penal Code (IPC) under its various sections also provides for punishment for such acts. According to Section 354 A of the Code, a man committing any physical contact, advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; or demanding or requesting sexual favours; or showing pornography against the will of a woman; or making sexually coloured remarks, shall be guilty of the offence of sexual harassment. The Section provides for rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years. Section 209 incorporates imprisonment for a term of up to 3 months or fine, or both for obscene acts in any public place, singing obscene songs to the annoyance of others. Similarly, according to Section 509 uttering any word or making any gesture intended to insult the modesty of a woman will amount to an offence for which the Code recommends imprisonment for 1 year, or fine, or both.

Sexual harassment can jeopardize the victim’s emotional and mental health. It can lead to the loss of self-esteem and it may even compromise personal relationships. Sexual harassment in the workplace can cause significant stress and anxiety. It’s a well-known fact that physical and emotional health are closely linked. When victims of sexual harassment experience mental and emotional problems, it often leads to physical health issues. In addition to causing health problems, sexual harassment frequently leads to financial challenges. Sexual harassment has a direct effect on employers and the global economy. Each year, millions are lost due to absenteeism, low productivity, employee turnover, low morale, and legal costs stemming from sexual harassment. The economy also suffers due to premature retirement and higher insurance costs.

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