It always comes as a shock to realise what good laws we have in this country and the absence of seriousness in implementing them.
You would imagine that women in powerful positions would never need to be worried about being sexually harassed at work. Or verbally abused just because they are women. India has many powerful women in politics and increasingly in the financial and corporate sectors. We hear no complaints from them, or at least they do not talk about this in public.
So when the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, recently gave a blistering speech on the floor of the House in Canberra, accusing the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbot, in no uncertain terms of misogyny, it must have come as something of a surprise to our women in politics and business. Her famous statement, which was widely viewed on YouTube, says it all. Referring to Mr Abbot, she said: “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror.”
Is it possible that even a woman as powerful as the Prime Minister of a country can be the victim of such misogyny and much of it open, not through innuendo or behind her back? Incidentally, the Australian Prime Minister’s use of the word “misogyny” also triggered a debate on the meaning of the term. The Macquarie dictionary definition is “hatred of women”. It is now being expanded to “entrenched prejudice against women”, according to the editor of the dictionary.
Definitions apart, Ms Gillard’s speech was a reminder that the issue of sexual harassment of all women is still one that remains unaddressed, especially in this country. And here it is the Supreme Court that has stepped in to remind us. In a ruling on October 19, the SC has asked all states, union territories and regulatory bodies to set up mandatory committees where women who are harassed at work can take their complaints. This ought to have been done a long time back. Whether this particular direction of the court will be followed or not is a moot point. Many such directions on a range of issues have been given in the past and convenient excuses have always been found for not implementing them.
Lawyers not exempt
The apex court has been quite specific about what it means in its ruling in response to a petition demanding implementation of the existing guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace, incidentally also set out by the same court in 1997. The court has noted that “there is still no proper mechanism in place to address the complaints of sexual harassment of women lawyers in Bar Associations, lady doctors and nurses in the medical clinics and nursing homes, women architects working in offices of the engineers and architects and so on and so forth”. Such a ruling will gladden the hearts of many professional women who have learnt the art of swallowing the nonsense they experience at work that is often dismissed as harmless “teasing”. Yes, “eve-teasing” is sexual harassment.
But what is odd about this latest intervention of the apex court is that, in its own premises, committees where women can go and complain have not yet been set up. When 63 women lawyers who practise in the Supreme Court filed a petition in September, asking the apex court and all the other courts under it to implement an existing law, their petition went virtually unnoticed by the media. Yet what were these women asking? That the Supreme Court and the other courts should set up committees to deal with sexual harassment as required by the law.
It should strike anyone as extraordinary that the very court that laid down what are popularly known as the Vishaka guidelines against sexual harassment, which were as good as the law until the recent bill on sexual harassment was passed by Parliament, should itself not follow it.
Apparently, the Supreme Court does have such a committee but it covers only the women in its administrative wing and not those women who practise law in that court. So in their plea, these women lawyers have said: “There is no forum in the SC, or the courts below, for women to address the issue of sexual harassment experienced by them frequently at the hands of their colleagues and persons in whose contact they come in while discharging their duties as advocates.” The important word here is “frequently”. If that is indeed the case, then the absence of such a committee is a serious lapse on the part of all courts in India.
It always comes as a shock to realise what good laws we have in this country and the absence of seriousness in implementing them. The problem is not the law. It is those who ignore it; those who break it; and those, including the government, who give it “lip service”, in the words of the Supreme Court.