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Make it work for working women

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:55 IST
Namita Bhandare

A bill to protect women from lecherous bosses is whipping up fear and loathing, at least in some quarters. In DNA newspaper Nirad Mudur writes about the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill: "I — and all male employees, for that matter — better fear the workplace." In Bangalore, an organisation called Save India Family Foundation says the bill will, 'endanger genial gender relationship in workplace (sic)'. And in office canteens the buzz includes the possibility of misuse by vengeful women employees while others wonder why men aren't being offered the same protection.

Give me a break.

Fear the workplace? Because unwelcome sexual advances (and we're not talking 'consensual flirtation' to quote a famous publisher) will now be punishable offences? Genial gender relationships? Save India Family Foundation's notion of places of employment as frolicking havens of genteel interactions between men and women is a joke. And women bosses stalking men — yes that is a possibility, but compared to men, how many women bosses do you know? And, for the record, the bill does have provisions for false complaints. Miffed women employees would be better off spitting into their boss' coffee.

Forget the workplace for a minute. Delhi, our 'world-class' capital is unabashedly hostile to women. We teach our daughters to walk fast on streets, avoid eye contact with men and return home before dark. Working women have no special immunity from this generalised hostility — as the killings of Jessica Lal, Soumya Vishwanathan and Jigeesha Ghosh show. A survey of 600 women in the IT and BPO industry by the Centre for Transforming India found a whopping 88% had been subjected to or witnessed sexual harassment in their workplace. Things can get rough even for those in uniform. In September this year, a woman constable was raped and murdered by two policemen in Chechat police station in Kota district.

Two words then to all the misogynists: shut up.

It's hard to believe but until the landmark Vishakha judgement in August 1997 women in the workplace had absolutely no protection against sexual harassment. The Vishakha judgement spelt out what sexual harassment was (sexual behaviour including physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands whether by words or actions), the responsibilities of employers in providing women with safe working places and the punishments that could be prescribed. Many of these features are now included in the bill.

Yet the bill, tipped to be introduced in Parliament's ongoing winter session, is far from perfect. Its most glaring omission, according to news reports, is domestic helpers, clearly the most vulnerable among working women. According to a 2004-05 study by the National Sample Survey Organisation, there are more than two million household helpers in India. These workers have no job security, paid leave or minimum wages. They are often subject to deprivation and gross abuse, verbal, physical and sexual — a fact brought out ironically by the Supreme Court during a recent ruling on maintenance. "If a man has a keep whom he maintains financially and uses mainly for sexual purpose and/or as a servant, it'd not, in our opinion, be a relationship in the nature of marriage," the court ruled in an inadvertent equation of servants with sex, a problem that is clearly prevalent but one which gets highlighted only when the odd film star gets arrested on rape charges.

The sexual harassment bill is, if nothing else, a nod to the growing visibility of working women. From high profile achievers in banks (Chanda Kochar), business (Kiran Majumdar Shaw), sport (Saina Nehwal), film (Kareena Kapoor), politics (Mamata Banerjee) to anonymous and unsung employees in the unorganised sector, women are shattering glass ceilings, surmounting huge odds, working for a variety of reasons from economic to aspirational, juggling home work with paid work.

Yet, at a function to felicitate Commonwealth Games women's wrestling gold winner Anita at Bhiwani, Haryana, her proud father, Dalip Singh Sheoran had this to say: "She must follow the customs. If she violates those, I can even kill her."

It will take more than mere laws to get men like Sheoran to change their minds. Until then, we'll take the law, thank you.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.