November 1, 2019
Coimbatore-based advocate K Ambujam Mohan explains how this Act helps in addressing the indignity suffered by women at workplaces.
A landmark Act to protect harassment of women at workplaces promulgated by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 and instituted in 2013 is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. What are the guidelines of this Act and how does it help working women suffering indignity at workplaces?
Coimbatore-based advocate K Ambujam Mohan tells The Covai Post, “This act is mainly for women to protect them from any violence or harassment at the workplace. It also covers women who experience molestation at public places and those working in houses and other institutions as helpers, carers and other jobs. The harassment can be visual, verbal, written or physical, anything which makes women uncomfortable.”
So this Act has made it mandatory for all offices to have an Internal Complaints Council (ICC). The female employees can complain here and disciplinary action can be taken within the office premises.
Advocate Ambujan explains, “The ICC will have a senior lady as chairperson and if a complaint comes up, then two people conversant with the issue and an NGO representative, or a person not working there will hear the complainant. We will be called to attend such interviews to give legal advice. So it is the responsibility of the employers to have ICC in their office and they should submit it in their annual fiscal reports. If not, any legal authority can question and take action on them.”
What is the punishment for the accused? “Depending on the severity of the crime, it can be cash fines, transfer or suspension of jobs and even cancellation of work permits. It is the employers’ responsibility to act quickly. Also women should lodge complaints with ICC immediately instead of allowing the harassment to continue and delay the redress.”
Before 1997, harassed women had to file complaints under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that covered a wider range of crimes instead of only workplace indignity. All this changed when Bhanwari Devi, a social worker in Rajasthan, was gang raped for trying to stop a child marriage in her village in 1990s. Her rapists, mostly feudal landlords, were set free by the Rajasthan High Court. Angered by this, Vishaka, a women’s rights group platform, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court (SC) against the state of Rajasthan.
Finally in1997, SC passed a landmark judgement for protection of women’s sexual harassment at workplaces. This was instituted as an Act in the Indian Penal Code in 2013 titled Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.
Advocate Ambujam concludes, “Such cases have not decreased, but there is more awareness now. Recently, we attended to a case in a women’s college where some students complained of sexual misbehaviour from visitors to the college. So their abusers were neither staff nor faculty. We have started an enquiry into the case.”