The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill 2012, recently passed by the Lok Sabha, has an unlikely starting point — the brutal gang-rape of a brave Rajasthani woman. Her struggle to seek justice prompted the filing of a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court that resulted in a landmark 1997 judgment which, relying heavily on international conventions, laid down the so-called Vishaka guidelines — a framework for dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace. Although the guidelines were laid down as the law of the land, enforceable until a statute was enacted, they were not properly implemented in both the government and private sector spheres. It was thanks to a combination of writ petitions that sought full implementation, a drafting initiative by the National Commission for Women, and pressure from civil society that we are close to having a full-fledged law that attempts to strengthen the right of women to a secure and non-threatening environment at the workplace.
The legal framework of the Bill is erected on the mandatory constitution of Internal Complaints Committees in offices and the creation of Local Complaints Committees in every district, twin mechanisms for redressal of complaints. Its ambit is wide as it covers, in keeping with the Vishaka guidelines, the unorganised sector, which in relation to a workplace means any enterprise engaged in the production of goods or providing service of any kind including those that employ less than 10 workers. The definition of the sexual harassment is expansive as well, including sexually-coloured remarks and any non-verbal gesture of a sexual nature. Setting up Internal Complaints Committees, which must include one member from a NGO, in all offices and branches with more than 10 employees will take some doing. And it remains to be seen how these committees, which have been vested with the powers of a civil court, will function. The proposed law may have missed a trick in not being gender-neutral: Data from countries such as the United States reveal that more and more men are filing sexual harassment claims, often against their male superiors in the same organisation. The ambiguous status of large agricultural enterprises and the armed forces must also be ended so that women who work in these sectors are fully protected. Overall, however, the proposed law, which will make it possible to speed up disciplinary action against offenders, deserves to be warmly welcomed. It is a significant step towards promoting equality in employment, which will remain a chimera as long as there is sexual harassment at the workplace.