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The problem of sexual harassment at work (SHW) is a huge issue that needs to be addressed. Here are recent updates to the SHW laws.
India had introduced the Visakha Guidelines way back in 1997 to address the problem of SHW. More than a decade later, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, came about. One of the most comprehensive laws against this pernicious harassment, the SHW Act not only defines what constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace, but spells out specific guidelines to tackle it . While carrying further the requirement of internal complaints committees ( ICCs) at workplaces to handle complaints, as spelt out by the Visakha Guidelines, the SHW Act seeks to penalize employers who ignore the law.
Yet, many establishments continue to fall behind in ensuring SHW-free workplaces with zero tolerance levels of unacceptable behaviour. Consequently, as with so many other government initiatives, and laws, sexual harassment at the workplace continues to plague women to this day.
Here is a rough guide to deal with SHW, if you find yourself a victim compelled to face it, the way I did more than a decade ago. ( In fact, the SHW Act came into force a little after I had won my case of illegal termination against my employer in the Industrial Tribunal in February, 2013)
To understand this, it is important that one is clear about what comprises sexual harassment in the first place. This is because workplace harassment may be in the form of
1) Professional harassment
2) Sexual harassment.
While professional harassment is certainly not acceptable, it pertains to bullying, and undermining a subordinate professionally, and preventing the person from moving ahead in her career.
Sexual harassment is of a more pernicious kind, and comprises- as per the definition enshrined in the SHW Act, the use of any kind of sexual innuendos in speech, physical gestures or touch that is unwelcome.
In fact, sexual harassment, as per the SHW Act, comprises-
As per the Act, any workplace with more than 10 employees must have an internal complaints committee ( ICC) comprising an equal number of men and women, and headed by a woman unconnected with the organisation, but with adequate experience in dealing with gender-related issues. Every employer is required to comply with this requirement, and, if not doing so, liable to be fined.
As a woman who is sexually harassed, you can always approach the Internal Complaints Committee ( ICC) of your organisation, and register your complaint. The ICC is obliged to act on your complaint within 7 days, and conduct an investigation into it.
If the complaint is of a serious nature, it is advisable to register a First Information Report ( FIR) at the local police station, or the Crimes Against Women Cell at the Police Headquarters in your city. In fact, the ICC at your workplace ought to be helping you to register your complaint with the police.
In case you work for an organisation that does not have an ICC, which is often the case, you can approach the respective State Commission for Women, and register your complaint with the District –level Local Complaints Committee ( LCC) .
If you encounter sexual harassment at your workplace, it is important to take note of the kind of unwelcome behaviour that has disturbed you, and maintain a diary. Remember, this is a very important requirement if you want to complain. It will not only help you recall the date and time of every incident of harassment, but – looking back – help you assess the psychological trauma you have gone through. Often, as was my case, a victim is too disturbed when harassed. Putting things in writing in a diary, on a daily basis, can help put everything in perspective.
Besides, when lodging any FIR with the police, you need to be precise with dates and location. Keeping a diary helps in giving a chronological description of events.
As per the SHW Act, the complaint needs to be made within three months of the particular objectionable act. In the case of a series of such sexually coloured actions, the complaint must be made within three months of the last such act.
Whenever a complaint is made, the ICC of the organisation – if there is one – is bound to investigate into the complaint. In case the investigation reveals the complaint to be false or malicious, the complainant can be penalised.
However, no action is to be taken if the complaint cannot be substantiated with adequate proof.
One must remember, employers may often try to prove the complaint to be false or malicious. It is also awkward if you cannot substantiate the complaint. Hence, try and confide in colleagues you can trust about such behaviour, prior to making an official complaint.
Harassers are – more often than not – serial offenders. You might even come across several others who have undergone similar or worse harassment. Generally, it is easier to take on a harasser when you are complaining in a group. It can also restrain the harasser from similar behaviour in future, especially if the harassment is not physical, and confined to verbal offence.
However, do not get deterred if you do not find people supporting you. It is rare to have people willing to stick their necks out. After all, employers can be vicious. Whatever the outcome, do not lose heart when you decide to complain. Singly or in a group, believe in yourself. Truth always prevails.
But wait! Have you checked whether your organisation has an Internal Complaints Committee at all?
Notwithstanding the provisions of the SHW Act, which calls on all organisations – that include educational institutions, hotels, offices, non-governmental organisations and establishments employing more than 10 women – to constitute an ICC, the compliance rate is extremely low. This holds true with both government and private establishments.
As Advocate Debashis Banerjee points out, “there are several colleges under Calcutta University that are yet to constitute ICCs, in spite of the University having directed them to do so a long time ago.” This is a serious offence, which can attract a fine as high as Rs 50,000, and following repeated non-compliance, end up with the cancellation of trade licences, and the like.
In case your organisation does not have an ICC, you – as an employee – ought to demand it (unless the establishment has less than 10 employees, and gets a waiver). You can complain of the non-compliance, and even demand action.
Once you make a complaint, the entire inquiry is to be conducted with the utmost confidentiality. Any breach of confidentiality on the part of any person invites a fine.
The inquiry into the complaint must be completed within a period of 90 days. Once the report is sent – action has to be taken on it within 60 days of receiving the report.
Pending the investigation of your complaint, and in keeping with your preferences, the employer can –
As a complainant, you can opt for a reconciliation, prior to an actual investigation. This, in fact, might even work with many employers, who might appreciate your attitude and rein in the harasser. Of course, if you find them uncooperative, there is always an investigation to go for.
To be on the safe side, consult a good lawyer who specializes in gender issues. This will not only help you deal with your case, but also ensure that you steer clear of the legal pitfalls.
When I faced SHW more than a decade ago, there was no legislation in place. The Visakha Guidelines were in place, but few organisations had bothered to be guided by it. Neither did the organisation I worked in have one; they constituted one only after I had complained to the State Women’s Commission.
Much as I wanted to avoid it, I was dragged into court. Hence, be prepared to face the worst.
For all the safeguards that the SHW Act provides, it is best to be alert. Do not be afraid to speak out if you find someone crossing his limits. Believe in and respect yourself; you are an equal citizen of a free country. Harassers are basically cowards; they thrive because we are afraid to take them on.
Demand your rights to a safe and secure workplace and you will get them!
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An independent journalist with over 27 years 'experience in the print and online media, and
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