Special Correspondent

Most women not aware of Supreme Court guidelines, says study in health sector

  • Appropriate implementation mechanism lacking
  • No direct action against perpetrators

    NEW DELHI: Notwithstanding the Vishaka judgment, sexual harassment continues to dog many women in the health sector, a study entitled "Sexual Harassment in the Workplace" and sponsored by the Population Council has said.

    What is required is an appropriate implementation mechanism that recognises the obstacles posed by power imbalances and gender norms in empowering women to make a formal complaint on the one hand and in receiving appropriate redress on the other, it said.

    The study explored women's perceptions and experiences of sexual harassment in the health sector in Kolkata. It confirmed the reluctance of women to invoke the complaints mechanism and the ineffectiveness of the existing system in punishing the perpetrator.

    Power imbalances

    While leading forms of harassment were verbal or psychological, a significant number reported unwanted touch, and sexual gestures and exhibitionism. Experiences reflected, by and large, power imbalances that make younger women and those in subordinate positions particularly vulnerable. Incidents of harassment were most often perpetrated by people in authority, such as senior or consultant doctors and even patients and their families, perceived to have the power to influence the women's job security in the institution.

    Few women, however, took formal action and complained to their supervisors or to the hospital management. Action taken in these cases was, by and large, indirect and rarely involved confronting the perpetrator or dismissing him.

    Most women were not aware of the Supreme Court guidelines and complaints mechanism/formal institutions of redress. Many others feared attitudes that would blame them for provoking an incident or feared the loss of their reputation as a result of complaining.

    They also realised their relatively powerless positions and feared job-related discrimination, including dismissal and withholding of promotions.

    Much remains

    The 135 in-depth interviews with women employees were conducted over a period of 11 months. Respondents were employed in four hospitals two government and two private. In addition, 40 interviews were conducted with heads of institutions of the four hospitals, unions and association heads.

    In 1997, the Supreme Court recognised sexual harassment at the workplace as a violation of human rights.

    The landmark judgment outlines a set of guidelines (Guidelines on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace) for the prevention and redress of complaints by women of sexual harassment at workplace.

    "While the Supreme Court guidelines have opened up the discourse on sexual harassment at workplace, it is clear that much remains to be done to address gender stereotyping and harassment at the working place and to ensure that women have recourse to effective resolution of complaints," the study said.