The alleged role of the former Haryana minister Gopal Kanda in the Geetika Sharma suicide case has, among other things, sparked off innumerable debates on the role of female employees in countering sexual harassment.
In the words of Ramesh Behl, a senior manager at a Gurgaon based corporate firm, “The problem stems at two levels. One, there are some women who think there is nothing wrong in talking loosely and dressing provocatively. This category of women, more often than not, is not conscious of the fact that their conduct is likely to attract unwanted attention from male colleagues. Needless to say, however, they are courting risk. There is a second category of women who have ambitions but little efficiency and knowledge of the job they have been assigned to do. There have been women who used their feminine guiles to manipulate career moves and hence became very susceptible to sexual harassment.” Behl also wonders, “If a woman is signalling consensus, how can she become a victim of sexual harassment?”
Raina Bhattacharjee, psychological therapist and wellness counsellor, explains, “From the woman’s point of view, this alleged manipulation usually starts and stops with flirting. This means that more often than not, most women in this scenario might be fine going for an occasional lunch date or receiving a few flirtatious compliments, but they are uncomfortable and unwilling when it comes to anything beyond this. Unfortunately, however, most men cannot comprehend this unspoken firewall in terms of permissiveness and consequently these women soon find themselves in sticky situations.”
Acclaimed women’s rights lawyer and writer Flavia Agnes says, “The worst thing that happens in such cases is that the woman finds herself completely alone. She feels that if she complains, people will unduly and sceptically question her about her initial overtures. And when the situation becomes unbearable women often resort to extreme measures like Geetika Sharma.”
The scenario, where workplace safety is concerned, is dismal. The 2010 Workplace Sexual Harassment Survey, carried out by the Centre for Transforming India, a non-profit organisation in the information technology and BPO/KPO industries, reveals that 88% of women working in India’s flourishing IT sector have been victims of some form of workplace sexual harassment.
So, are we as a nation trying to reverse these ugly facts? Are we finding solutions in a proposed law or are its provisions not comprehensive enough? “The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010, mandates every establishment to set up an internal complaints committee that can look into these matters. But this is a fundamental flaw (of the Bill) since members of this complaints committee might not always be independent of the influences of the management which has instituted it. And this especially becomes a tricky issue if the offender in question is part of the top management,” says Agnes.
A lot of women are in agreement that though the bill is not foolproof, it at least provides a starting point of security. But yes, every working woman should take the onus of her personal security and well-being at the work place. Talking about precautions, Bhattacharjee says, “Women should express strong resistance to the smallest inappropriate gesture, action, word or speech. Otherwise, the offender will assume that he has her consent and will progress to bigger offences. Women should learn to discern friendly behaviour from inappropriate behaviour and maintain certain boundaries with men at all times. For instance, it is fine to laugh and joke but one should be wary of crude jokes.”
Key features of the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010
- The bill proposes a definition of sexual harassment, which is as laid down by the Supreme Court in Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan (1997). Additionally, it recognises the promise or threat to a woman’s employment prospects or creation of hostile work environment as ‘sexual harassment’ at the workplace and expressly seeks to prohibit such acts
- It provides protection not only to women who are employed but also to any woman who enters the workplace as a client, customer, apprentice, and daily wage worker or in an ad-hoc capacity. Students, research scholars in colleges/university and patients in hospitals have also been covered. Further, it seeks to cover workplaces in the unorganised sectors
- It provides for an effective complaints and redress mechanism. Under it, every employer is required to constitute an internal complaints committee. Since a large number of the establishments (41.2 million out of 41.83 million as per Economic Census 2005) in the country have fewer than 10 workers for whom it may not be feasible to set up such a panel, the bill provides for setting up of a local complaints committee (LCC) to be constituted by the designated district officer at the district or sub-district levels, depending on the need. This twin mechanism would ensure that women in any workplace, irrespective of its size or nature, have access to a redress mechanism. The LCCs will enquire into the complaints of sexual harassment and recommend action to the employer or district officer
- Employers who fail to comply with the provisions will be liable to punishment with a fine which may extend to R50,000
- Since there is a possibility that during the enquiry, the woman may be subject to threat and aggression, she has been given the option to seek interim relief in the form of transfer either of her own or the respondent or seek leave from work
- The complaint committees are required to complete the enquiry within 90 days and a period of 60 days has been given to the employer/district officer for implementation of the recommendations of the committee
- The bill provides for safeguards in case of false or malicious complaint of sexual harassment. However, mere inability to substantiate the complaint or give adequate proof wouldn’t make the complainant liable for punishment