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Sexual Harassment at Workplace - An Overview

Written by: Arkodeb Sinha, Final Year Law, Symbiosis Law College
Personal Law
Legal Service
  • According to the Protection of Human Right Act, 1993 "human rights" means the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India. It is necessary and expedient for employers in work places as well as other responsible persons or institutions to observe certain guidelines to ensure the prevention of sexual harassment of women as to live with dignity is a human right guaranteed by our constitution.

    It has been laid down by the Supreme Court that it is the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent or deter the Commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedure for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts of sexual harassment by taking all steps required.

    What amounts to sexual harassment?

    Sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:
    (a) physical contact and advances
    (b) a demand or request for sexual favours
    (c) sexually coloured remarks
    (d) showing pornography
    (e) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

    Where any of these acts is committed in circumstances where under 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, 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.

    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 or promotion or when it creates a hostile work environment. Adverse consequences might be visited if the victim does not consent to the conduct in question or raises any objection thereto.

    Steps to be taken by the employers
    All Employers or persons in charge of work place whether in public or private sector should take appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment. Without prejudice to the generality of this obligation they should take the following steps:
    (a) Express prohibition of sexual harassment as defined, above at the work place should be notified, published and circulated in appropriate ways.

    (b) The Rules/Regulations of Government and Public Sector bodies relating to conduct and discipline should include rules / regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and provide for appropriate penalties in such rules against the offender.

    (c) As regards private employers steps should be taken to include the aforesaid prohibitions in the standing orders under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1940.

    (d) Appropriate work conditions should be provided in respect of work, leisure, health and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at work places and no employee woman should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.

    Awareness of the rights of female employees in this regard should be created in particular by prominently notifying the guidelines (and appropriate legislation when enacted on the subject) in a suitable manner.

    Criminal proceedings / disciplinary action

    Where such conduct amounts to a specific offence under the Indian Penal Code or under any other law, the employer shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority.

    In particular, it should ensure that victims, or witnesses are not victimized or discriminated against while dealing with complaints of sexual harassment. The victims of sexual harassment should have the option to seek transfer of the perpetrator or their own transfer.

    Where such conduct amounts to misconduct in employment as defined by the relevant service rules, appropriate disciplinary action should be initiated by the employer in accordance with those rules.


    Whether or not such conduct constitutes an offence under law or a breach of the service rules, an appropriate complaint mechanism should be created in the employer's organization for redress of the complaint made by the victim. Such complaint mechanism should ensure time bound treatment of complaints.

    The complaint mechanism, referred above, should be adequate to provide, where necessary, a Complaints Committee, a special counsellor or other support services, including the maintenance of confidentiality.

    The Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its member should be a woman. Further, to prevent the possibility of any undue pressure or influence from senior levels, such Complaints Committee should involve a third party, either NGO or other body who is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.

    Complaint procedure must be time bound.
    Confidentiality of the complaint procedure has to be maintained.
    Complainants or witnesses should not be victimised or discriminated against while dealing with complaints. 
    The Complaints Committee must take an annual report to the Government department concerned of the complaints and action taken by them.
      The employers and person in charge will also report on the compliance with the aforesaid guidelines including on the reports of the Complaints Committee to the Government department.

    Conducting enquiry by the complaints committee

    Any person aggrieved shall prefer a complaint before the Complaints Committee at the earliest point of time and in any case within 15 days from the date of occurrence of the alleged incident.

    The complaint shall contain all the material and relevant details concerning the alleged sexual harassment including the names of the contravener and the complaint shall be addressed to the Complaints Committee.

    If the complainant feels that she cannot disclose her identity for any particular reason the complainant shall address the complaint to the head of the organisation and hand over the same in person or in a sealed cover.

    Upon receipt of such complaint the head of the organisation shall retain the original complaint with him and send to the Complaints Committee a gist of the complaint containing all material and relevant details other than the name of the complainant and other details, which might disclose the identity of the complainant.

    The Complaints Committee shall take immediate necessary action to cause an inquiry to be made discreetly or hold an inquiry, if necessary.

    The Complaints Committee shall after examination of the complaint submit its recommendations to the head of the organisation recommending the penalty to be imposed.

    The head of the organisation, upon receipt of the report from the Complaints Committee shall after giving an opportunity of being heard to the person complained against submit the case with the Committee's recommendations to the management.

    The Management of the Organisation shall confirm with or without modification the penalty recommended after duly following the prescribed procedure.

    Where the conduct of an employee amounts to misconduct in employment as defined in the relevant service rules the employer should initiate appropriate disciplinary action in accordance with the relevant rules.

    Third Party Harassment

    Where sexual harassment occurs as a result of an act or omission by any third party or outsider, the employer and person in charge will take all steps necessary and reasonable to assist the affected person in terms of support and preventive action.

    The Central / State Governments are requested to consider adopting suitable measures including legislation to ensure that the guidelines laid down by this order are also observed by the employers in Private Sector.

    Laws under which a case can be filed

    Section 209, IPC deals with obscene acts and songs and lays down:

    Whoever, to the annoyance of others:
    a) does any obscene act in any public place or
    b) sings, recites or utters any obscene song, ballad or words in or near any public place, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term, which may extend to 3 months or with fine or both. (Cognizable, bailable and triable offences).

    Section 354, IPC deals with assault or criminal force to a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty and lays down that:

    Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine or both.

    Section 509, IPC deals with word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman and lays down that:

    Whoever intending to insult the modesty of any woman utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or both. (Cognizable and bailable offences).

    -Civil suit can be filed for damages under tort laws. That is, the basis for filing the case would be mental anguish, physical harassment, loss of income and employment caused by the sexual harassment.

    -Under the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act (1987) if an individual harasses another with books, photographs, paintings, films, pamphlets, packages, etc. containing "indecent representation of women"; they are liable for a minimum sentence of 2 years. Further section 7 (Offenses by Companies) holds companies where there has been "indecent representation of women" (such as the display of pornography) on the premises guilty of offenses under this act, with a minimum sentence of 2 years.

    The author can be reached at: [email protected] / Print This Article

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    Sexual Harassment and Rape Laws in India
    Sexual Harassment in Office
    Sexual Harassment at Private offices and government
    Understanding Jurisprudence of Judicial Legislation on Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace in India
    Protection Against Sexual Harassment of Women In India - A Human Right Perspective
    Paving the Way - Judging Workplace Sexual Harassment

    Leading Judgments on Sexual Harassment

    Regina v R - recognise rape within marriage
    Maharashtra v Madhukar Narayan Mardikar - merely because a woman is of easy virtue, her evidence cannot be thrown overboard
    Cehat And Ors. vs Union of India - Female Foeticide
    Chairman, Railway Board Vs. Chandrima Das - Rape case
    Tuka Ram  vs State of Maharashtra - landmark judgment on Rape
    Miss Radha Bai Vs The Union Territory of Pondicherry
    Apparel Export Promotion Council vs A.K. Chopra
    Mrs. Rupan Deol Bajaj vs Kanwar Pal Singh Gill
    Vishaka  vs State of Rajasthan - Sexual Harassment

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