Supreme Court guidelines say all firms should have a Complaints Committee to address women’s issues at workplace

The State Women’s Commission is planning to hold a meeting of all government and private institutions in Ernakulam district on constituting a Complaints Committee to address cases related to harassment at workplace.

Lissy Jose, a member of the Commission, told The Hindu that the meeting would be scheduled in December. Ms. Jose said that government institutions would be called first and private institutions later. Media houses would be part of the scrutiny, she said, against the backdrop of the recent Tehelka case involving its Editor-in-chief.

The commission would be seeking support from the industry and trade bodies. It has been found that not even 10 per cent of organisations have any such support for women at workplace.

Constituting a panel that would give women a sense of security at workplace is only the first step. Women lawyers who have dealt with such cases feel constituting a committee does not mean anything. “The victim of sexual harassment should be protected and she should be able to go through the process of inquiry without undergoing mental trauma. The panel should aim at this,” said Bhadra Kumari, a lawyer.

If the complaint cell is not effective, the victim would be harassed again, she added. “Even empowered women have withdrawn their complaints fearing about their future and career. Then, how can an ordinary woman gain confidence to complain about the harassment,” she asked.

“Some of the public sector institutions have strong cells, but again, whether these cells function effectively now is difficult to judge as an outsider,”said H. Subbalakshmi, former member of the State Women’s Commission.

Vishakha guidelines

Wherever women are employed, the organisation has to take a stand to protect them from sexual harassment.

This basic direction was given by the Supreme Court in a case following the gangrape of a social worker in Rajasthan, in which a women’s organisation Vishakha filed a public interest litigation. It provided the guidelines to be followed by any organisation.

That was in 1997. But, 16 years after the guidelines were published, there are only a few organisations in the private sector that have a committee in place in the office where women can go fearlessly and register a complaint against their seniors, colleagues or juniors who had hurt them mentally or physically.

The Vishakha guidelines have defined what could be construed as sexual harassment. These are: physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

The guidelines said that a safe working environment for women was the responsibility of the employer.

“It shall be the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in workplaces or other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts, of sexual harassment by taking all steps required.”

SC guidelines

The Supreme Court guidelines say that a grievance redressal mechanism should be put in place that mandates all companies, whether operating in the public or private sector, to set up a Complaints Committee within the organisation to look into such offences.

The Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its members should be women.

To prevent the possibility of any pressure or influence, such a Committee should have a third party, either an NGO or other body which is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.

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