Sexual Harassment at Workplace: 20 Years after Vishaka Verdict

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The Apex Court, for the first time, laid down a volume of guidelines and principles, apparently to be followed by all employment institutions state governed or private. In 2013, 16 after the landmark judgement, The Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prohibition, Prevention, and Redressal) Act, 2013 was passed, which superseded all the existing guidelines, states Vedatrayee, our legal columnist, exclusively in Different Truths.

What is sexual harassment at the workplace? What are the rules that make a certain behavior a sexual harassment? Is there really any remedy?

These are a few of the common questions that I have found to be raised by , including women, since the very start of my legal career. This gives us a glimpse of the sparse rather negligible amount of awareness regarding the subject. Two decades after the Apex Court’s verdict in Vishaka and others v/s State of Rajasthan, sexual harassment at workplace, painfully, continues to remain an untold suffering seldom looked at and talked about except for a few short films and advertisements which people conveniently forget just like any other awareness videos. It is like a latent evil that is feeding on the ignorance and nonchalance of people waiting to raise its ugly head up high for another Nirbhaya like incident. It is not only India that is ailing from this disease but the whole world is affected by it.

Female independence is considered to be the key to women empowerment, both socially and personally. One of the most pertinent reasons, inter alia, for the acceptance and commission of offences against women is independence. Independence is a birthright and a person, irrespective of gender, must have the right to earn a living for themselves. It is nothing ‘special’ for a woman to earn her own living and it is not because she has to provide for her family but also for her own security and overall development. This idea has failed when it comes to parity in the workplace.

As women try to fight economic disparity with men, a new form of emerges – sexual harassment at workplace. It is incompatible with the dignity and honour of women and results in the violation of fundamental rights enshrined in the . It is only in the recent times that the fact that violation of women’s bodies may extend beyond brutal instances of rape, has been recognised. This offence is a glaring example of how mankind has failed women in every aspect of life and how a woman born in this world is safe nowhere.

Sexually harassment, as many people think, is not only touching of the body without permission but extends beyond that. It extends to disruption of various psychological factors as well. According to the campaign leaflet of the Southeast Region women’s group and WASH (Women Against Sexual Harassment), it includes comments about body or appearance or clothes, leaning and staring, abusive language, sexist remarks and jokes, patronizing and belittling gender biased comments, sexual invitations, sexually coloured remarks, forcing to watch pornographic contents and other like factors. In short, anything that causes a woman to think of herself as not worthy of the ‘manly’ job she is doing or that since she is not safe to work she must stay at home. The injuries arising from such harassment ranges from anxiety, , depression, loss of confidence and motivation, which finally leads to emotional breakdown.

The first successful claim against sexual harassment at the workplace is Walker vs Northumberland Council whereby the English Court awarded psychiatric damages arising out of occupational stress. Thus, mental stress as distinguished from physical contact is also sexual harassment. All these make people conclude upon the vulnerability of women. Women are not vulnerable. Aged, infants and sick persons are. Women are none of these. As a matter of fact, women are made to feel vulnerable because of the insecurity that men possess. Women scare people.

The most unfortunate phenomenon is that this problem exists worldwide and to my amazement even in the ‘developed’ countries. Even in a country like the US, considered to be the birthplace of all human rights activities and feminist movements, it was only in 1980 that the United States Equal Employment Opportunities Commission issued a set of guidelines which concisely defined sexual harassment.

In India, the subject of workplace harassment is comparatively new and was brought to the light for the first time in the landmark case of Vishaka and others vs the State of Rajasthan after a PIL was instituted by a social when a lady was gang-raped by her co-workers in a construction site. This is considered as the most accomplishing case in this field whereby the Apex Court, for the first time, laid down a volume of guidelines and principles, apparently to be followed by all employment institutions state governed or private. In 2013, 16 years after the landmark judgement, The Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prohibition, Prevention, and Redressal) Act, 2013 was passed, which superseded all the existing guidelines provided by The Supreme Court.  Well, if you ask me, this is the best case because there has been none instituted and fought for after Vishaka case with the same valor.

The number of cases that reach media or the common masses is near to none. Vishaka is a process, which was initiated but it never reached its destined end. There is very little or no awareness regarding the offence. The fear of loss of job, hostility at work, power play and social stigma still prevents a considerable percentage of working women from filing cases. That marginal amount that does is made to face innumerable hardships making their battle so difficult that they succumb to the emotional pressure and either recline or if left with no other choice, compromise. This once again poses the same question, do enactments suffice to curb a social evil?

Things You Need to Know

Although the proper functioning of any enactment depends upon its proper implementation and when it comes to implementation India is way below the par, it is no harm to get conscious of the existing remedies and redressal forums which a victim of sexual harassment at the workplace can resort to.

The Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prohibition, Prevention, and Redressal) Act, 2013, is the major enactment dealing with the subject in India, after 2013. This Act is only for women victims and any woman, who is not an employee can also resort to this Act if falls prey to sexual harassment in any institution. This Act not only covers the employment institutions but also educational and medical institutions.

The most important feature of this Act is that it has delved deeper regarding the connotation of ‘workplace’ than what was done in Vishaka Guidelines. The Act goes much further to include various other institutions and any place visited by the employee during the course of employment including the transportation. The Act has made it mandatory to set up Internal Complaint Committee in any employment with more than 10 employees. It is illegal if any company fails to adhere to any of the rules set up in the Act. The employers who fail to comply shall be punished with a fine of up to Rs. 50,000. The Act has strict provisions regarding confidentiality with a penalty for a person who breaches confidentiality. So, next time don’t be worried about social taboos!

©Vedatrayee Dutta

Photos from the Internet

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Vedatrayee Dutta

Vedatrayee Dutta

A young lawyer by profession from The City of Joy, Vedatrayee is currently pursuing LLM from Calcutta University.She is a Bharatanatyam danseuse who has won a number of prestigious awards and performed in several National Festivals and Competitions throughout the country. Another passion that stirs her from deep within is the welfare of street and abandoned animals. She volunteers for a sociocultural endeavor, Swatantra, striving for the social, cultural and behavioral empowerment of the population.
Vedatrayee Dutta
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