The draft law on sexual harassment could make the workplace safer for women.
Locker room talk, personal remarks and unsolicited advances will all get the official stamp of disapproval if the draft bill on sexual harassment is passed by the Cabinet next month. This comes 13 years after the Supreme Court framed the Vishaka guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace. The draft bill based on these guidelines has been around since 2001 — an alternative one was framed in 2004 — but so far, few employers have complied with even the minimum requirement of having a workplace committee to look into women employees’ grievances. The draft now also covers the unorganised sector where women workers have been most vulnerable as well as students.
The fact that there are safeguards against false complaints will make it more acceptable all round. It is worrying that even government institutions have so far been tardy in setting up committees to look into cases of harassment despite the Supreme Court ruling that their word would be final. This suggests that employers don’t treat this as a priority. The challenge will be to make the bill effective in the unorganised sector. Many units in this sector aren’t even registered, have casual labour and operate beyond the purview of the law. A woman who is harassed in the agricultural sector isn’t likely to have recourse to a committee that can address her complaints. The main stumbling block in this very welcome bill is the lack of awareness of its existence in a majority of workplaces. A concerted effort must be made to make women aware that the law is on their side when they face sexual abuse at the workplace.
The other problem is that men, who are generally the harassers, don’t view lewd remarks or improper suggestions as harmful or demeaning to a woman’s dignity. The attitude is that ‘boys will be boys’ and that this goes with the territory. In an age when more women are rising to supervisory positions in the workplace, it might also be worthwhile to ensure that sexual harassment isn’t viewed through a gender-specific prism. But these flaws will get ironed out in due course of time. The positive aspect is that the law recognises sexual harassment as a crime against women and has taken measures to make the workplace safer for them. Once the bill is passed, it’s
crucial that a mechanism is evolved to ensure that its provisions are complied with. Otherwise, like so many well-meaning legislations aimed at empowering women, this too will remain on paper.