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Use law as gender mender

Guidelines on sexual harassment must be used judiciously as they may be abused to settle scores, writes Shivani Singh, convenor of the college complaints committee against sexual harassment.
None | By Shivani Singh
UPDATED ON JUL 19, 2007 02:25 AM IST

A university teacher is suspended for three months on alleged charges by a female colleague of sexual harassment. A senior professor faces enquiry under alleged charges by a university employee of sexual harassment. A female student of a university college has lodged a similar complaint against her supervisor.

Of late, there has been a spate of such complaints of sexual harassment in Delhi University (DU). In the absence of legislation, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to enforce gender justice at the workplace. These guidelines emerged in a writ petition on the Vishakha and Ors vs State of Rajasthan and Ors case, filed in the wake of an incident of alleged gangrape of a social worker in Rajasthan. The petition focused attention on the hazards to which a working woman is exposed, and the need to find suitable methods for realising gender equality at the workplace through the judicial process.

Any incident of sexual harassment is a violation of fundamental rights under Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution. Right to life means life with dignity. Right to practise any profession or to carry out any occupation, trade or business depends on the availability of a safe working environment, which is a guarantee of life with dignity. ‘Sexual harassment’ includes unwelcome, sexually determined behaviour like physical contact and advances, sexually-coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions, that lead to a hostile work environment.

All over the world, women, irrespective of their class, are subjugated if not exploited. From time to time, policy-makers draft proposals to rectify this injustice. The guidelines given in Vishakha for the prevention of sexual harassment aim at preventing injustice to, and oppression of, women at the workplace. It is a bold step to empower women and ensure their security. But the sad part is that in a male-dominated society, in spite of granting various rights for the equality of sexes, women are unable to exercise their rights in full. They may hold high administrative and political posts, but their male mentors (in many cases, husbands) exercise de facto decision-making powers. Here, the very idea of empowerment gets disrupted.

In an ongoing enquiry against sexual harassment, no individual is supposed to decide who the victim is. So the best policy could be to let the law take its own course, allow people at the helm of the inquiry committee to ensure justice and follow fairness in legal proceedings. No one should be hanged without being heard.

The ability to reason makes an individual the best judge of his own interests, and he is supposed to follow the dictates of his reason rather than those of others. This is what is advised to a woman complaining against sexual harassment: to use her reason judiciously and not get influenced by others. For like any other law, the judgment granting protection against sexual harassment could also be misused. People might influence a woman to complain of sexual harassment simply to settle personal scores. In the name of sexual harassment, arbitrary power in the hands of the authorities enables them to punish whomsoever they want. Such misuse of these guidelines against sexual harassment could prompt male colleagues to refuse to cooperate with their female counterparts in any committee, teaching or invigilation. As a result, the academic and professional atmosphere of the college is likely to deteriorate. Therefore, extreme caution should be observed to ensure that the complaint is genuine without any mala fide intention, as such complaints are very humiliating to the person concerned.

The very purpose of the SC guidelines is to preserve the dignity and self-respect of women at the workplace. Therefore, they should be used for protecting women from oppression and injustice, and not as missiles by women to be vindictive towards their male counterparts. This kind of misuse of power can lead to clashes along gender lines. What we want is coordination and cooperation from male colleagues, not confrontation and conflict.

Shivani Singh teaches in Dayal Singh (E) College & is Convenor of the College Complaints Committee Against Sexual Harassment

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