Friday, April 26, 2013

Will sexual harassment law at work stem the scourge?

Sexual harassment at workplaces will now officially be an offence with the President of India on Friday giving his assent to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2013.

The legislation which has been long overdue addresses a broad range of offences in office spaces such as sexual favours, offensive remarks, physical advances or display of pornographic material. The need for such a law has all the more been felt given the swelling female participation in the labour market.

While the legislation is certainly welcome, whether it will actually stem the tide of harassment remains to be seen. After all, the Supreme Court had way back in 1997 addressed the issue of sexual harassment in workplaces in what was popularly called the Vishaka judgment and instituted a guideline for offices to follow. Sadly, over 15 years since the landmark judgment very few corporate or even public offices have worked towards implementing its provisions.

For instance, the court had suggested that all offices institute a complaints committee which could probe complaints from female employees and pursue criminal proceedings, if need be. However, such cells are still largely lacking in India Inc.

The issue of bringing harassment in workplaces to the fore is already plagued by many challenges including unequal power relations between the employer and employee, the lack of job security in the wake of complaints or the ability to speak out amongst ones peers. The lack of an enabling environment deals a further blow.

It is essential that all the stakeholders, the government, India Inc and civil society now work towards effectively implementing the law. It will truly signal a more inclusive labour market.

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