The law and ‘Sexual Harassment’ at the workplace

Laws against sexual harassment at work, empowerment of women, discrimination against women, gender discrimination.

Sexual harassment at workEmpowering women, the Supreme Court of India has laid down guidelines defining sexual harassment. But a sample survey has revealed that a majority of women are not even aware of the guidelines 10 years after they were formulated.

The legally binding guidelines include sexually determined behaviour such as:

• Physical contact
• A demand or request for sexual favours
• Sexually coloured remarks
• Showing pornography
• Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

Going a step ahead of the 1997 guidelines, the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that ‘physical contact’ is not an essential feature of sexual harassment. It made the observation while dismissing a male worker who sat too close to his typist, despite her protests, and tried to touch her. He also tried to touch her in the elevator, but she pressed the emergency button and opened the elevator door.

The Supreme Court said: “sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination projected through unwelcome sexual advances, the request of sexual favours and other verbal and physical conduct with sexual overtones, whether directly or by implication, particularly when submission to or rejection of such conduct by the female employee was capable of being used to affect the employment of the female employee and unreasonably interfering with her work performance.
Who are covered by the guidelines?

Women who draw a regular salary, receive an honorarium, or work in a voluntary capacity – in the government; private sector or unorganized sector come under the purview of these guidelines.

Who should prevent sexual harassment?

It is the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent sexual harassment and to provide procedures for resolution of complaints

The sample survey in Kolkata in 1996 revealed that working women were largely unaware of the laws regarding sexual harassment. It was based on 135 in-depth interviews with women employees conducted over a period of 11 months in four hospitals -- two government ones and two private ones. In addition, 40 interviews were conducted with the heads of the four hospitals, unions and association heads.

Meanwhile, the Government of India has decided to deepen the Supreme Court guidelines and widen the definition of workplaces. It has even brought ‘consumers’ and professionals in the ambit of provisions against sexual harassment. Police lock-ups are also covered.

“The Protection against Sexual Harassment of Women Bill 2005” stipulates that offices of elected representatives including Parliament, State Legislatures and local Government bodies, would be covered by the Bill. It has also brought the Supreme Court of India, High Courts and other subordinate courts under the provisions of the Bill.

The Bill, not yet passed by Parliament, is open to suggestions and comments.


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