A 2010 survey on workplace sexual harassment conducted by the Centre for Transforming India, a non-profit organisation, found that 88 per cent of women interviewed faced some form of harassment but many did not want to complain for fear of professional reprisals. Many others were not aware of what exactly constituted harassment.
But things are slowly changing as more women join the workplace and cases at work receive wide publicity.
In October, a 35-year-old laboratory assistant in a Delhi college set herself on fire after alleging that she had been sexually and mentally harassed by two colleagues. She died from her injuries. In September, a college professor was suspended for allegedly sending “unwarranted” messages to a PhD student. Then came the Tehelka case, followed by that of the law intern.
“A lot of companies were not aware and didn’t think it necessary to have structural intervention and did not accord it any importance. But these cases have created greater sensitivity and raised awareness,” said Mr Pankaj Sharma from the Centre for Transforming India.
“This is a common phenomenon the world over. The only difference is if you have a gender-sensitive workplace, strong judicial system and reporting intensity. India scores low.”
Indeed, activists believe India has a long way to go. Just setting up panels is not enough if it is not accompanied by greater sensitivity towards the opposite sex and action when complaints are made.
Last month, the Supreme Court set up a 10-member committee to look into sexual harassment complaints, which could be anything from physical advances to “sexually coloured” remarks.
The Press Council of India has also asked all media houses to set up internal panels. The Hindu newspaper has done so.
Ms Swarna Rajagopalan of Chennai-based non-profit Prajnya Trust said the extent of sexual harassment will become clearer after panels are set up and women have a place to go.
“People will know where to take their complaints once the committees come. Then we will have a sense of of how large the problem is,” she said. “It is the first step. The journey doesn’t begin or end with the setting up of committees.”