Thirteen years after the Supreme Court ordered implementation of a set of guidelines to protect women from sexual harassment at work, the government has drafted a bill to replace the guidelines issued in the 'Vishaka case'. The Prohibition of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, 2010 is expected to be tabled in Parliament this monsoon session.
It's interesting to note that on March 10 this year, Pakistan enacted a similar law under which a culprit can be sent to jail. The Indian draft, however, does not go that far. A guilty employee can be sacked at the most and the victim compensated financially. If the act is criminal, the victim will then have to charge the offender under other laws.
But the Indian bill is ambitious at other levels. It covers a wide swathe of the workforce, including the estimated 118 million women in unorganised sectors such as agriculture, construction, handloom, domestic help, shops and small-scale industries — working on a regular, temporary, ad hoc or daily wage basis. Even students, NGO workers, research scholars, trainees and patients will be able to claim cover. Also, it offers a broad definition of harassment by "verbal, textual, physical, graphic or electronic" means.
If the bill becomes law, managements of all organisations employing more than 10 people will have to set up a mechanism for the filing of complaints and their redress. If a worker is at fault, the employer must act within 60 days.
But our bill protects only women. Most western countries, including the UK, Australia and France, have gender-neutral laws. In the US, where such laws vary between states, the share of harassment claims filed by men has doubled to 16 per cent between 1990 and 2009, says the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Brinda Karat, leader of the All India Democratic Women's Association who was involved in the making of the draft, says, "The Bill has been drafted in the Indian context keeping in view the Indian experience and to suit the Indian situation. There is no question of making it gender-neutral."
Girija Vyas, chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), says the draft has been based on the Supreme Court's Vishaka verdict, and recommendations of the Law Commission and NCW. "In most cases, women are the victims... We'll see in the future if other cases come up."
Shouldn't there be a provision to deal with harassment by a person of the same sex? "Let [this draft] be passed. Let us see its implementation. As and when such a situation arises, we will think of it," says Karat.
However, senior Supreme Court advocate Pinky Anand says, "There is no reason why the proposed law should not be gender-neutral — and protect both women and men. Today the possibility of either sex being harassed is a reality."