‘New law a weapon to combat sexual harassment at work’

Deepa Kurup
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Last week, Parliament passed an important legislation, one that seeks to protect the Indian working woman. The Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment Bill 2010, now awaiting Presidential nod, lays down the law as far as employer responsibilities in dealing with sexual harassment goes.

Significantly, it covers many more sectors — domestic workers and agricultural labour — than when it first started out in 2010, and penalises employers who sit on complaints. In an interview with The Hindu , Subhashini Ali, president of the All-India Democratic Women's Association, says the Bill is a good start. Excerpts:

After two long years in Parliament, and 15 years after the Supreme Court's Visakha guidelines, the Bill is finally passed. What does this new legislation mean for working women in the country?

The passage of the Bill is significant because of the long years it has taken owing to tremendous opposition from corporates, employers and many MPs. But in the light of the Justice Verma Commission’s detailed comments and suggestions, it could have been greatly improved.

However, the enactment provides a weapon to working women and their trade unions to combat sexual harassment at the workplace. Most offices, including government ones, do not display the Visakha guidelines. Committees are often non-existent or ineffective.

The Act can help change this.

AIDWA and women's rights groups campaigned hard to include domestic and agricultural workers in the ambit of the legislation. Why is this significant?

Domestic and agricultural workers are most vulnerable. The former because of their isolation and the latter due to their social weakness vis-a-vis their employers. So, we are glad they accepted our suggestions. But it is highly objectionable that all the so-called “project workers” such as ICDS, ASHA and Midday meal workers have been left out of the ambit of the Act. These are largest and fastest growing groups of working women. Their conditions of work make them extremely vulnerable to abuse and violence.

Some sections of this legislation had drawn sharp criticism from rights groups. In its current form, what are the lacunae?

The greatest injustice that this Act contains is that it says that women, whose complaint is found to be untrue, will be punished. This will act as a great deterrent to the filing of complaints and goes against the spirit of the Act. The composition of the committees is also not satisfactory and there is no guarantee that the process will be time-bound.

There is no guarantee that this law will see speedy and effective implementation. Special tribunals for hearing appeals are very much needed.

What are the major issues working women in India face today. Have the nature of these problems changed as more women have joined the workforce?

The “women's workplace” is a very very capacious phrase that extends from homes to factories, fields, workshops, godowns, hospitals, schools and more. The problems of safety and job security, and a living wage are as acute as ever. While a miniscule percentage are in high income jobs, I think that sexual exploitation and harassment of varying kinds are a threat or a reality for many of these women at some point or other. And job insecurity is on the rise with increasing contractualisation.

Over the years, has Women’s Day, which comes from the legacy of the working class women’s movement, transformed in to a more individualistic, fluffy celebration of the woman?

Yes. On the one hand, March 8 has been adopted by the media and all kinds of organisations without little idea about the history or origins of the day. Most of these institutions or groups have no links with working class movements. On the other, all those who observe it do focus on women’s rights, gender inequality, violence and empowerment in some ways. However tenuously or superficially, it gives women’s movements and organisations a chance to become conscious of the working class origins [of March 8] and there is a possibility that they will at least connect with some of these [issues].

Punishing women for false complaints goes against spirit of the Act, says Subhashini Ali




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