The laws against harassment are there, if only all women knew about them
The Trump gropathon saga saw women coming out almost every day with horrific stories of the presidential candidate’s predatory behaviour. Closer home we had the Pachauri episode, in which the climate change czar allegedly harassed a young colleague at the workplace. The victim here had evidence in the form of emails to prove her allegations though an almighty fight was put up by the offender including insisting that his emails were hacked.
The good news is that the Indian law on this issue is surprisingly comprehensive and I think it is just that many women don’t know enough about the provisions designed to protect them. Every organised sector is meant to have an internal committee to decide on matters of sexual harassment at the workplace. Few including government departments take this seriously. The inquiry into a complaint from a woman is meant to be completed in 90 days, according to the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2013. This is rarely done except in a few workplaces which take this issue seriously.
The harassment is not confined to the workplace and here again the law is on the side of women in no uncertain terms. The ridiculous and demeaning practice of eve-teasing, glorified by our films, assumes threatening proportions on the roads. In films, the hero will follow a girl, jostle her in public places and pop up in unexpected places to embarrass her, and finally she gives in to his dubious charms. You will be glad to know that singing lewd songs to women in public spaces constitutes sexual harassment with a three-month jail term. That ought to silence budding roadside songsters but how many women know of this law. Women I know as well as myself have faced countless incidents of harassment in buses and other forms of public transport. I once actually filed a case against a man who harassed me relentlessly in a train to Kerala while I was in college. Of course, such sweeping laws were not in place at that time. I found no support among the women in the compartment or the police on account of the fact that the harasser was the nephew of the then chief minister of the state. The attitude of the public also is that these are harmless little indiscretions which don’t amount to violence and hence why should women make such a fuss about their private spaces being violated?
Demanding sexual favours, a form of harassment that takes place mostly at the workplace, could get the offender up to three years in jail. Stalking, of course, can get him three to five years. This is a serious problem in India, where many men almost feel entitled to a woman’s compliance if he happens to fancy her. In one case, the stalker followed the victim all the way to another city where he killed her. The police tend not to take complaints about stalking very seriously and in several cases the victims who approached the police were met with indifference.
Capturing images of a woman without her consent is voyeurism and punishable under IPC Section 354, which can get the accused up to seven years in jail. Making sexually coloured remarks against a woman too is punishable with up to three years. The same goes for using sexually inappropriate language in the presence of a woman. This has been a problem in many workplaces and the woman who objects is seen as a prude or hypersensitive. Yet, in India most men do not even seem to realise that their language or “locker room” banter as Donald Trump would have it is offensive and demeaning to women.
But the real problem lies with the majority of women in India who work in the unorganised sector. If they are farm workers, they have no particular law to protect them at their workplace, apart from the general laws. Since they are daily wagers, there is little chance that they will report untoward behaviour from landlords. In the small units which employ less than eight people again, the harassment law does not apply, leaving women wide open to all manners of abuse. So, we have excellent anti-harassment laws if only all women knew about them and it applied evenly to every one of them.