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Breaking The Silence: Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment In India

"The time has come when women must be able to feel liberated and emancipated from what could be fundamentally oppressive conditions against which an autonomous choice of freedom can be exercised and made available by women. This is sexual autonomy in the fullest degree" - - Late Chief Justice J.S. Verma, Justice Verma Committee Report, 2013

India ranks first among the most populated countries. In 2023 the male population in India is expected to be 730 million while the female population is expected to be 675 million which makes 48% female. According to the Status of Women in India report, 10% of working women face sexual harassment at the workplace and the report further reveals that 44.8 per cent of women in India are employed in India

Sexual harassment is a universal issue; hence it becomes crucial to discuss the rights of women, especially against sexual harassment in the workplace as studies show that there is a lack of a safe environment for those women who are willing to contribute financially and reduce the burden of their family. With the increased participation of women in various sectors, the cases of harassment have risen at an alarming rate. In this article, we shall address workplace sexual harassment in India.

Understanding Sexual Harassment

The concept of Sexual harassment first originated in the early 1970s, when the chancellor of MIT and the president addressed a variety of gender issues it can be defined as any unwelcome sexually defined behaviour which can range from any unwelcome sexual advances, sexual favours, and harassment or comments about an individual's gender.

The issue of equality, safety and security first came before the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India in the most famous case known as Vishaka's case which defines sexual harassment as:
  1. Physical contact and advances
  2. a demand or request for sexual favors
  3. showing pornography
  4. any other unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature

In Shanta Kumar v. Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and others, it was held by the Delhi High Court that the contact should be of sexual intention to come under the medium of sexual harassment and only physical contact will not fall under this.

At this point, the first question that comes to our mind is what constitutional provisions hold for its citizens and is there no act to address this issue? But as usual, Acts are there against workplace harassment but no proper implementation.

Constitution's Equality Provisions

Our constitution of India is the supreme law and various provisions prohibit the discrimination of citizens on various grounds. These provisions include:

  • Article 14 (Equality before law) mentions that the state shall not deny any person equivalency before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.
  • Article 15 prohibits discrimination among the citizens of India on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
  • Article 19(1)(g) of the constitution grants the fundamental rights to all citizens to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade, or business.
  • Article 21, which relates to the right to life and personal liberty, includes the right to live with dignity and respect in the workplace.
Hence these provisions in the constitution support the availability of a safe environment for women in the workplace. However, the question arises despite the aforementioned provisions why still women are facing harassment in the workplace? This happens because despite being several provisions there is a lack of enactment and applicability of laws.

Key Findings Of Sexual Harassment At Workplace

  • Only 25% of the sexual harassment in their workplace was reported to manager, boss, supervisor, or management.
  • 38% of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in their workplace.
  • Roughly 75% of workplace sexual harassment cases always remain unheard of as there is no report available for this.
  • 63% of women did not file a complaint.
  • 55% of victims experience retaliation after speaking up or making a claim.
  • 7 out of 10 disabled females have felt sexual harassment at the workplace.
  • Roughly 1 in 3 working females who are under 35 years of age have been sexually harassed at work.
  • 36 per cent of organizations don't offer sexual harassment training.
  • 17 per cent of the sexually oppressed male nurses do report the case to the employer.
  • Women either under the pressure of patriarchy or allowing what others will suppose leads them to complicated problems that not only affect them physically but mentally as well.

Vishakha's Case

(Vishakha and Ors v. State of Rajasthan, 1977
It is one of the landmark cases where the issue of sexual harassment was raised. It was the incident that took place in 1992 where a lower caste woman named Bhanwari Devi who was a social worker was trying to stop child marriage in the village and was gang raped was five men in this regard.

The Supreme Court via its order dated 13.03.1997 laid down several guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace which are as follows:
  • The duty of the employer or other responsible person in the workplace is to prevent the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide necessary steps for the resolution of the acts of sexual harassment.
  • Appropriate work conditions should be provided concerning work, leisure, health, and hygiene and ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women.
  • Where the conduct amounts to a specific offense under IPC, the employer shall initiate appropriate actions and the victim must have the option to seek transfer of the perpetrator or their own.
  • A complaint committee should be put in place which should be headed by a woman, and more than half of its members should be women.
  • Moreover, concrete steps should be taken to spread awareness of the rights of the female employee.

Medha Kotwal Lele Case- 15 Years After Vishakha Case

The question of harassment faced by women in the workplace again came up for adjudication before the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India through a set of PILS( Public Interest Litigation)

The supreme court observed "the implementation of the guidelines in vishakha has to be not only in form but substance and spirit to make available safe and secure environment to women at the workplace in every aspect and thereby enabling the working women to work with dignity, decency and due respect. There is still no proper mechanism in place to address the complaints of sexual harassment of the women lawyers in the bar association, lady doctors and nurses in the medical clinics and nursing homes, women architects working in the offices of the engineers and the architects and so on".

The Sexual Harassment Of Women At Workplace

(Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal) Act, 2013
The government after the Vishakha guidelines started working on and drafting the appropriate laws in this respect. However, the said laws never came to materialize, they remained in the shadows unseen till the Supreme Court of India issued other guidelines in furtherance of the Vishakha case

The parliament passed the "The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill and it received the assent of the president on 22nd, April 2013 and came into force on 9th September.

Key provisions:
  • The Act defines a workplace as any department, organization, institution or office which is funded by the appropriate government or local authority directly or indirectly.
  • Section 2(a) defines an aggrieved woman as a woman of any age whether employed or not who alleges or has been subjected to any act of sexual harassment by the respondent.
  • Section 2(g) of the act mentions the definition of an employer as any branch, office, department, organization, institution or such other officer as the appropriated government or local authority.
  • The term 'domestic worker' is defined under section 2 clause (e) as a woman who is employed to do the household work in any household for remuneration whether in cash or kind, permanent, part-time, or full-time basis.
  • Every employer is required to constitute an ICC i.e. Internal Complaints Committee at each branch where there are 10 or more employees. This committee has the power of the civil court.
  • Penalties have been prescribed in the act for the employers for non-compliance with the provision of the act.
  • Any woman who is a patient in hospital, employed in an organization, a student or researcher, etc. qualifies for protection under the law.
  • Various educational and awareness programs should be conducted by the employers regarding the same.
It must be noted that conducting an ICC is a mandatory requirement under the PoSH Act and constituting it brings out the positive perspective that the companies are working to provide safe working conditions for women.

The procedure to file a complaint:
The process of filing a complaint against sexual harassment at the workplace is provided under section 9 of the Act, given below:
  1. Complaint
    9. Complaint of sexual harassment- any aggrieved woman may make, in writing, a complaint of sexual harassment at the workplace to the internal committee or the local authority in case not constituted within a period of 3 months from the date of the incident.

    In case a woman is unable to file a complaint due to her mental incapacity or death her legal heir or such other persons may make a complaint under this section.
  2. Scope for mutual conciliation
    The concerned committee shall upon receipt of the complaint provide an opportunity to the aggrieved woman and the accused person to arrive at a mutual ground provided no monetary considerations should be involved, In case of no conciliation an inquiry shall be constituted.
  3. 11.Inquiry into complaint
    The local authority shall forward the complaint to the police within 7 days of registering the case under section 509 of the Indian penal code(45 of 1860) in the case of domestic worker After completing the inquiry the committee is required to submit its report within employer or district officer within 10 days.

    However, the act nowhere provides any punishment or imprisonment for the offence of workplace harassment who are found guilty however in the case of domestic worker it has been provided that a complaint will be forwarded for registration of case under section 509 or any other relevant provision.
  4. Compensation
    Compensation to the aggrieved woman shall be provided under section 15 of the PoSH Act:
    • Local authority as the case may be shall regard to
    • The mental trauma, pain, and suffering, caused to the aggrieved woman
    • The loss of career opportunities due to the incident of workplace harassment
    • All the medical expenses incurred by the victim
    • The income and the financial status of the respondent.
  5. Penalty
    Where the employer fails to constitute an internal committee or contravenes or attempts to contravene the provisions of the act, he shall be punishable with a fine which may extend to fifty thousand rupees.

What Can Bystanders Do To Prevent Sexual Harassment

The person who hears or sees sexual harassment is called by standards. Active bystanders can play a role in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. He/ she can talk to the person experiencing harassment.

If a bystander has the permission of the person experiencing it then they can also report to the employer.
Encourage coworkers and supervisors to speak up and take action when they witness inappropriate
Beaviour, the workplace can become a better and more supportive environment for women.

Final Thoughts:
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a delicate issue and has to be handled with care, patience and understanding. Women should be provided with the safest working conditions as a nation's progress is much dependent upon how society treats the vulnerable sections (women and children) of society.

However, a safe Workplace is every woman's right. It is important to address the problem and cure it at the initial stage and women should be encouraged to fight the assault. Gender biases and cultural issues should not come in the way of raising the voice against wrongdoing otherwise the problem will persist because if not you, someone else will face the same.


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