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GENER ISSUES

Forge a healthy workplace

Sexual harassment at the workplace is an issue that needs to be dealt with despite the Supreme Court's guidelines. PADMINI DEVARAJAN looks at what needs to be done.


REGRETTABLY there is still no tangible legislation that tackles the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Conversations on this topic, with a broad cross-section of the general workforce in various public and private organisations, disclose a disturbing reality. The majority displayed not only a reluctance to talk about sexual harassment, but also ignorance about the process for addressing the problem. There is no denying the fact that sexual harassment exists, outside as well within the workplace, that it needs to be curbed, and that women have been at the receiving end of varying shades of gender discrimination, professional and/or sexual.

Recent high profile allegations and incidents of sexual harassment are examples of an entrenched problem. In Wilson College, Mumbai, an assistant librarian committed suicide because the college authorities had allegedly harassed her. A lawsuit against Infosys has made headlines over the last few months. A few days ago, the university syndicate suspended a professor of geography at Karnatak University after allegations of sexual harassment were levelled against him.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) was set up as a statutory body in January 1992 under the National Commission for Women Act, (1990) to review constitutional and legal safeguards for women. Since most women's movements in the country have been effective because of the efforts of NGOs, the NCW interacts and networks with NGOs, State Commissions, media, social activists and academicians to suggest ways of ensuring due representation of women in the process of ensuring gender equality and empowerment of women. This mandate of the NCW is fairly general and does not specifically address the problem of sexual harassment.

In fact, the Supreme Court had to take active steps in the absence of legislation. While dealing with the Visaka v. State of Rajasthan case (1997), the Court noted that the present civil and penal laws do not adequately provide specific protection to women from sexual harassment at the workplace. Since the enactment of legislation to that effect would take considerable time, the Supreme Court insisted that organisations initiate a Sexual Harassment Complaints Committee in the workplace and inform all employees about its existence. Any unwelcome sexually determined behaviour - physical contact, or demand for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, circulation of pornographic material would come under sexual harassment. The employer has to provide a safe working atmosphere and a grievance committee to look into complaints. The rules and regulations regarding conduct and discipline at the workplace and the penalties for offenders should be made known to all. Obscene acts that outrage a woman's modesty are criminal offences. These directions would be binding and enforceable in law in all workplaces, until suitable legislation is enacted. Despite this mandatory edict, many public sector undertakings and organisations are yet to put adequate mechanisms in place even after six years.

The judgment by the Supreme Court is important as no domestic legislation on this topic exists, nor is it expressly mentioned in the Constitution. Prabha Sridevan, Judge, Madras High Court, refers to this as a landmark judgement, quoting Angela Ward's appreciation of the same in a recent international conference in Dublin on the Role of National Judges in Enforcing International Human Rights Law. Ms. Ward commented that the Supreme Court relied on its powers under the Indian Constitution to issue guidelines for the enforcement of fundamental rights, and on Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), together with the general recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women with respect to these provisions.

Soon after the Supreme Court's ruling, the NCW swung into action by drafting a bill and circulating guidelines and a code of conduct to the government departments in various States as well as to NGOs to facilitate redressal of grievances. In many government departments and educational institutions (like the IITs and the University of Madras), cells have been formally instituted. Dr. Usha Titus, the first woman registrar of IIT Chennai, says that there should be more awareness of the Women's Cells not only among women but also among men to make it more effective and meaningful. In some cases such cells have come into operation only after publicised instances of harassment. Following the suicide at Wilson College, the University of Mumbai has decided to set up Women's Development Cells to hear and address issues related to female students and women employees. Grievances pertaining to sexual harassment, gender discrimination and other kinds of harassment can get a quick hearing at these cells. IT major Infosys Technologies, plans to engage an external consultant and evolve a well-defined policy against sexual harassment which would be communicated to all employees, and train top-level management across global offices of the company on issues of sexual harassment.

While people at the helm should realise the need for such initiatives, the workforce should also be made aware of their existence. A large number of women in rural areas and in small organisations face rampant harassment. In most cases, where there is no way for the oppressed woman to speak up, such cells can be a welcome step. Some argue that there is the possibility of the complaint cells being misused. Yet surveys indicate that a large percentage of women feel that complaints in their organisations are ignored or that offenders receive only token reprimands, revealing a credibility gap in the organisational efforts to deal with sexual harassment.

While governments should speed up the legislation, the onus is also on both men and women to forge healthy professional relationships.

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