It has taken its time coming. Sixteen years after the Supreme Court's seminal Vishaka judgement, which laid down the definition of sexual harassment, preventive measures and redress mechanisms, came into play, and two months after the street protests following the December 16 gang rape in Delhi forced the Centre to focus diligently on issues related to safety and security of women, India now has a Bill that aims to ensure a safe working environment for women.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday; the Lok Sabha had approved it in the last session of Parliament.
Under its list of offences, the Bill covers sexual remarks, demand for sexual favours, or any act of physical advance or an unwelcome touch. It includes circumstances of implied or explicit promise or threat to a woman's employment prospects or creation of a hostile work environment or humiliating treatment and it also widens the definition of aggrieved women.
While 'workplace' in the Vishaka guidelines is confined to the "traditional office set-up where there is a clear employer-employee relationship", this Bill includes any place visited by the employee during the course of employment.
And the definition of employee covers regular/temporary/ad hoc/daily wage employees, and even volunteers. This Act provides for a special mechanism for domestic workers in case of any complaint, which can then be forwarded to the police.
The Bill, however, is far from perfect.
First, the Bill's definition of "aggrieved woman" includes only a woman in relation to either a workplace or a dwelling place. It excludes students in institutions.
Second, many feel that the option of conciliation has not been defined. In the Indian context, "conciliation" could be seen as a pressure to "settle" the issue or "adjust" to the circumstances. The definition of "workplace" is also dodgy: it is a "random yet incomplete laundry list of locations and circumstances".
Third, and something that would irk most, is the issue of punishment if the charges are false. While there is no denying that there could be cases of wrong complaints, in no other area of the law, do we have such a clause.
Then when it comes to redressal in workplaces, the new Bill has removed the provision of a civil society expert on the panel. While the provisions of the Bill are probably not as strong as was desired by experts and only time will determine its quality, the fact that it went through Parliament "unanimously" minus any discussion is disconcerting because a debate could have improved it.
Last, but not the least, no law can be effective unless certain other structures like the policing and judicial systems are in place and are functioning effectively. And in India, as we know, that could be the biggest inhibiting factor.