Workplace sexual harassment is an important issue that deserves more than the intermittent attention it receives when high-profile cases are in the news. This is particularly true in India where legal protection for victims was lacking in statutory cover until a few years ago. Some progress has been made since then—but there is still a considerable distance to go.
India’s response to workplace sexual harassment rests on two pillars –
- The first is guidelines issued by the Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) in 2012. These guidelines mandate that listed companies must file a Business Responsibility Report annually that lists details of the sexual harassment complaints the company has received.
- The second is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The Supreme Court-issued Vishaka Guidelines in 1997 that outlined procedural guidelines to be followed by establishments where a case of sexual harassment had occurred. The latter was finally put in place a decade and a half later with the Act, which drew heavily upon the Guidelines.
Reviewing the 2013 Act –
There is a sharp rise in the number of complaints (since 2013) which indicates that cases that would have been overlooked earlier are now being reported. That, in turn, shows that companies are making some progress when it comes to putting Act-mandated processes and frameworks in place.
- The Act mandates that employers must constitute a four-member internal complaints committee (ICC) in any branch or office that employs more than 10 people of any gender. The ICC must include a member of a non-governmental organization working for women’s causes—something that may not always be easy due to a paucity of such organizations and individuals.
- The Act also lays the onus for sensitizing employees to sexual harassment issues, and creating awareness of redressal mechanisms, on employers. By all accounts, this has been observed more in the breach.
- When it comes to implementation and accountability of SEBI guidelines, the preponderance of small and medium enterprises—not to mention the size of the informal sector—creates a conundrum. Women in domestic and informal sector have little recourse to institutionalized redressal mechanisms.
- State governments should take on the responsibility of enforcing implementation.
- The Act’s provision that complainants dissatisfied with the ICC’S recommendations can approach the courts is of little practical use in light of delays in judicial process and the harassment women continue to face at the hands of the police in filing such complaints.
- The single best solution to harassment is greater gender diversity at the workplace—an area where India lags conspicuously. How this can best be achieved—improving pipelines is always preferable to hiring quotas—is an important debate.
Tackling workplace sexual harassment is an ethical imperative; such harassment infringes on an individual’s right to freedom of profession and occupation and undercuts the ideals of a modern democracy. And it is an economic imperative; getting and retaining more women, who are disproportionately targets of harassment, in the workforce has the potential to be a major growth driver. The Act is a beginning—but currently, only that.