Long bygone are the days when men used to be the sole bread-winners of a family. Globalization has brought a radical change in the status of women worldwide. However, with the larger influx of women in the mainstream workforce of India, sexual harassment at workplace has assumed greater dimensions.
Workplace sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination which violates a woman's fundamental right to equality and right to life, guaranteed under Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution of India ("Constitution"). Workplace sexual harassment not only creates an insecure and hostile working environment for women but also impedes their ability to deliver in today's competing world. Apart from interfering with their performance at work, it also adversely affects their social and economic growth1 and puts them through physical and emotional suffering.
India's first legislation specifically addressing the issue of workplace sexual harassment; the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 ("POSH Act") was enacted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, India in 2013. The Government also subsequently notified the rules under the POSH Act titled the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Rules, 2013 ("POSH Rules"). The year 2013 also witnessed the promulgation of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 ("Criminal Law Amendment Act") which has criminalized offences such as sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism.
The POSH Act has been enacted with the objective of preventing and protecting women against workplace sexual harassment and to ensure effective redressal of complaints of sexual harassment. While the statute aims at providing every woman (irrespective of her age or employment status) a safe, secure and dignified working environment, free from all forms of harassment, proper implementation of the provisions of the statute remains a challenge.
Although the law preventing sexual harassment at workplace has been in force since 2013, there remains lack of clarity on various aspects pertaining to the statute, including what constitutes sexual harassment, obligations of an employer, remedies/safeguards available to the victim, procedure of investigation, etc. Many are also not fully aware of the criminal consequences of sexual harassment. Lewd jokes, inappropriate comments etc. are dismissed as normal, with women being hesitant to initiate actions due to apprehension of being disbelieved or ridiculed; which underpins the need for greater awareness and greater enforcement.
Any tool would be useless if the person operating it is unaware of the way it is to be used. Therefore, the objective of this booklet is to serve as a ready reckoner to all the stakeholders and re-educate them on the law relating to workplace sexual harassment.
This booklet focusses mainly on the POSH Act and other relevant laws in India pertaining to workplace sexual harassment. Further, the objective of this booklet is to create more awareness on the issue and simultaneously equip employers in providing women a safe and secure working environment. The booklet also discusses the importance of 'prevention' as the best tool for elimination of this menace in a multi-cultural society as ours.
2. Evolution of The Law on Workplace Sexual Harassment
The elimination of gender-based discrimination has been one of the fundamentals of the Constitutional edifice of India. The principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Constitution, in its Preamble, fundamental rights, fundamental duties and Directive Principles. However, workplace sexual harassment in India, was for the very first time recognized by the Supreme Court of India ("Supreme Court") in its landmark judgment of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan2 ("Vishaka Judgment"), wherein the Supreme Court framed certain guidelines and issued directions to the Union of India to enact an appropriate law for combating workplace sexual harassment. Nothing less of an irony, the POSH Act and the POSH Rules was enacted 16 years after the Vishaka Judgement.
In the absence of a specific law in India, the Supreme Court, in the Vishaka Judgment, laid down certain guidelines making it mandatory for every employer to provide a mechanism to redress grievances pertaining to workplace sexual harassment ("Vishaka Guidelines") which were being followed by employers until the enactment of the POSH Act.
I. The Vishaka Judgement
In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a dalit woman employed with the rural development programme of the Government of Rajasthan, was brutally gang raped on account of her efforts to curb the then prevalent practice of child marriage.3 This incident revealed the hazards that working women were exposed to on a day to day basis and highlighted the urgency for safeguards to be implemented in this regard. Championing the cause of working women in the country, women's rights activists and lawyers filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court under the banner of Vishaka.
The Supreme Court for the first time, acknowledged the glaring legislative inadequacy and acknowledged workplace sexual harassment as a human rights violation. In framing the Vishaka Guidelines, the Supreme Court placed reliance on the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, in 1979, which India has both signed and ratified. As per the Vishaka Judgment, the Vishaka Guidelines issued under Article 32 of the Constitution, until such time a legislative framework on the subject has been drawn-up and enacted, would have the effect of law and would have to be mandatorily followed by organizations, both in the private and government sector.
As per the Vishaka judgment, 'Sexual Harassment' includes such unwelcome sexually determined behavior (whether directly or by implication) as:
- Physical contact and advances
- A demand or request for sexual favours;
- Sexually coloured remarks;
- Showing pornography;
- Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct of sexual nature.
Where any of these acts are committed in circumstances under which the victim of such conduct has a reasonable apprehension that in relation to the victim's employment or work (whether she is drawing salary or honorarium or voluntary service, whether in government, public or private enterprise), such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem, it amounts to sexual harassment in the workplace. It is discriminatory, for instance, when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment or work (including recruiting and promotion), or when it creates a hostile working environment. Adverse consequences might result if the victim does not consent to the conduct in question or raises any objection thereto.'
1. Statement of Objects and Reasons, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
2. 1997 6 SCC 241: AIR 1997 SC 3011
3. Indira Jaising, Law Relating to Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (2014)
To view the full article, please click here.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.