Women in India Seek Viable Law Against Sexual Harassment in The Workplace

By Amrita Nandy, Womens Feature Service

“Please do not talk to Manju about the incident. Although it happened nine months back, she has still not recovered,” cautioned Sunita, 46, a domestic worker, while referring to her niece who survived a sexual assault attempt by her ex-employer’s 24-year-old son.

This happened four months after Manju, 19, left her village in the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh for her first job as a housemaid in Delhi. “Manju ran away from that house. She reached me in a hysterical state. I was shocked to know what she had experienced.

When I confronted Manju’s employers, they refused to believe me and instead called Manju and me whores. They have physically shove us out of the house.

The police did nothing to help. Who should I go to?” asked an angry Sunita.

Scores of domestic workers like Sunita rallied at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar recently to raise this question. Unfortunately, the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Bill 2010 is waiting to be enacted in the Parliament. It offers them neither an answer nor any redress.

Recently cleared by the cabinet, the Bill is a long anticipated and much-needed measure to ensure women’s safety in the workplace. The Bill based its comprehensive definition of sexual harassment on the Supreme Court’s Vishakha versus State of Rajasthan case (1997) and covers both private and public workplaces.

But while women’s groups, feminists and lawyers had engaged with the draft version of the Bill several years ago when it was with the National Commission for Women, the version that will become the law of the land betrays their efforts. It has given serious conceptual flaws that curtail its scope and efficacy.

The most glaring slip is the exclusion of domestic workers from its ambit. As is widely known, there are millions of female domestic workers who toil each day for unaccounted hours (and this is another kind of abuse) in middle and upper middle class homes in Indian cities and towns all over the country. The nature of their work in the privacy of homes makes them most susceptible to all kinds of sexual exploitation.

The Bill’s provision to penalise women for false complaints has come under attack. As the earlier examples bear out, certain forms of sexual harassment cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt as may be possible with physical injury or other crimes. In such a situation, it is very unfortunate that the lack of proof of a crime makes the complainant liable for punishment.

Besides, the false complaint clause pre-supposes that women will file wrong cases to settle scores with male seniors or colleagues. However, it must be kept in mind that in a society where ‘honour’ is a woman’s most prized asset, women think a thousand times before placing themselves in the public eye over an issue with sexual underpinnings.

So while the chances of women filing false cases will continue to be slim, the chances of women not being able to prove harassment and thus being penalised for a false complaint may be more likely.

According to the Workplace Sexual Harassment survey conducted by Centre for Transforming India, a non-profit organisation, among 600 female employees working in the IT sector across India, as many as 50 per cent women reported to have been subjected to abusive language, physical contact or superiors seeking sexual favours.

Forty-seven per cent female employees did not know where to report sexual harassment and 91 per cent did not report for fear of being victimised. That a victim fears reporting a crime speaks volumes of the realities of women’s lives. To add a clause of prosecution for women in the Bill is a definitive strategy to strengthen women’s fear and ensure silence.

An effective law could have been a powerful tool in the hands of millions of women in India to take on sexual marauders in the workplace. Unfortunately, that promise has been belied in the present Bill.