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Special Content

volume-49, 07-13 March, 2020

Making Work Places Safer for Women

Dr. Sheetal Kapoor

8th March is a historic day as it is celebrated globally as 'International Women's Day'. This year the theme for International Women's Day 2020 campaign is #Each for Equal. A gender equal world is an enabled world. It is a day which challenges stereotypes, fights biases, broadens perceptions, improve situations and celebrates women's achievements. As collectively, each one of us can help to create a gender equal world.

In India despite all the talk about gender diversity and affirmative action, very   few women are into leadership positions such as CEO"s, judges in recent times. Out of every 100 CEOs and managing directors of companies listed on the National Stock Exchange, only about three are women, and this has been the case since 2014. "The top talent in India is naturally skewed towards choosing men as CEOs and MDs. There are just 24, or 4.8%, women among CEOs of companies that made up the 2018 Fortune 500 list. Therefore, what is required is creating more job opportunities for women with flexible hours and creches within workplaces.

In this changing world and marketplace, every organisation understands the importance and advantage of having a diverse workforce supported by both men and women equally. Further making the workplaces safer for women can go a long way. Sexual Harassment (SH) is one of the biggest challenges faced by women at workplace Studies show that while fulfilling duties at workplace many individuals generally who are in power commit offences of sexual harassment believing that there will be no action taken against them. Although the working institutions have gone a long way in modernisation and development, the cases of sexual harassment continue. According to World Policy Analysis Centre nearly 235 million women Worldwide lack legal protection from sexual harassment at workplaces.

 In India a research conducted in 2017 found that 70% of the cases of sexual harassment of women go unreported. Supreme Court in Vishakha case for the first time brought guidelines for ensuring a safe environment for women at workplace in India. The guidelines later helped to enact Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act 2013. Sexual Harassment not only causes physical pain, but the victim goes through mental and emotional trauma.

Laws play an important role in ensuring the safety of women at workplace. Through laws a fear is being created in the minds of those who take to doing such heinous acts. Over the years what gave the wrong doers confidence was that no matter what they do the victim will not be able to report the same on account of shame and even losing their jobs. However, with social media and the power shown by 'metoo' movement now, it is clear that unlike earlier time's women now have a platform to share their issues. Hence along with this if strict laws and punishment for wrong doers is put in place no one would ever think of doing such acts at workplace.

In India, stricter laws regarding sexual harassment came after the harrowing Nirbhaya rape case in 2012. This case was also was a wakeup call for the nation in realising that although many laws are in place, there is no fear amongst them and many culprits are confident of getting away in sexual harassment cases due to loopholes in the system. Hence a need arises to review India's sexual harassment laws from time to time to ensure the wrong doers don't escape so easily. Lack of awareness amongst victims, poor implementation and strict compliance can ensure that no woman becomes victim of sexual harassment in given situations.

Laws in India to Make Workplaces Safer For women

  • The judgement of Supreme Court of India on "Vishakha Ors vs Government of Rajasthan & Ors" was the stepping stone towards ensuring a safe working environment, free from sexual harassment for all employees at the workplace. For the first time Supreme Court acknowledge the gravity of sexual harassment of women and laid down guidelines mandatory for employer to prevent sexual harassment know as "Vishakha Guidelines 1997". The Vishakha Guidelines are based on Bhanwari Devi case. She was employed by state of Rajasthan as a "Sathin" a change agent working towards prevention of child marriages. While doing her job she prevented the marriage of one year old girl but she faced resentment and harassment from the community. Even after report of such incident no action was taken by local authority and later she was gang raped. This incident revealed the issues and challenges faced by women at workplace and the severe consequences where no action was taken against the culprit. Based on this case a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed with Supreme Court by Vishakha and other women groups against the State of Rajasthan and Union of India.

The SC proposed sexual harassment be recognised as violation of fundamental rights under article 14, 15, 19(g) of constitution right to equality and article 21 right to life and live with dignity. Before 1997 there was a continuous pressure from international organisation on India to enact and enforce law to ensure the safety of women and no violation of human right (Right to life and live with dignity under article 21 and right to equality under article 14 & 15). India has also signed Convention on elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) on 30th July 1980 and later ratified it on 9 July 1993. Since there was no domestic law in India, there was an international obligation to ensure safe working environment.

  • Passing of the most benevolent legislature ie 'The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act", 2013 on 9th December. The POSH Act's scope extends to public & private places including schools, colleges and it covers the transportation taken and places visited during the course of employment.

In India the POSH Act 2013 requires every organisation with employee more than 10 to constitute a committee known as internal committee in each and every administrative units, branches and offices. At least 50% of total nominated member shall be women. It is important to have maximum women representations in such committees so that women can raise their voice more strongly. If the number of workers is less than 10 or if the complain is against the employer himself then the acts provides provision to constitute Local Committee by district officer at district and block levels.

  • In India the employer or District Officer is responsible for prevention, prohibition and constitution of redressal mechanism. Many a time laws fail to redress the issue in reasonable time period. The Act ensures fast enquiry and judgement as the employee need to complain within 3 months and the committee needs to complete the investigation within 90 days and send the report to District office, who have to take action within 60 days.

Other International Laws and Policies for Addressing Sexual Harassment in The Workplace are:

a) The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979. CEDAW directs all parties to take effective measures to end discrimination and to ensure safe working environment.

b) United Nation General Assembly Resolution 48/104 on the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Even after adoption of CEDAW violence on basis of gender specially against woman remains a continuous problem, as a result the General Assembly issued resolution to ensure world free of gender based violence on 20th December 1993.

c) UNiTE to End Violence against Women: Launched in 2008, it aims to raise awareness to public and increase the resource dedication and policy making to curb/stop the violence against women and girls across the nations.

d) The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Re-commendations (CEACR) which is an independent body composed of 20 outstanding legal experts has confirmed that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No. 111) of 1958. The ILO's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169) also specifically prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace.

Conclusion: The need of the hour is to have gender balance at workplace and every employee in the organisation needs to be sensitised about the various laws which are existing in India to protect women. It should be mandatory for organisations to create policies for zero tolerance of sexual harassment at workplace. For easy approach and accessibility the details of ICC and its members must be shared with all employees. Further, women need to be proactive and come forward themselves to tackle issues of gender inequality and sexual harassment at workplaces.

(The author teaches at Kamla Nehru College, University of Delhi. Email: sheetal_kpr@hot mail.com)

Views expressed are personal

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