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Sexual harassment safeguards absent

Deepa Kurup
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It’s been a decade and a half since the Supreme Court issued its landmark guidelines in the Bhanwari Devi case, which for the first time defined and sought to tackle sexual harassment at the workplace. A project worker for the Rajasthan government, she was brutally raped for performing her duties by reporting a child marriage in the upper caste community of her village.

All these years later, it appears little has changed on the ground. Just a few months back, the sexual harassment and abuse of an anganwadi assistant in K.R. Pet taluk, exposed the vulnerable nature of their work lives. She was beaten up and molested by parents who were furious that during the midday meal she did not give their children eggs, which the targeted government scheme provides only for ‘severely undernourished’ children.

While her case received public attention given the criminal nature of the abuse, hundreds of others who deal with such aggression and conflict on a daily basis, do not report simply because there is no institutional mechanism in place, says S. Varalakshmi, secretary of the Anganwadi Workers’ Association. “Though many government offices have ‘harassment cells’, when it comes to the district or taluk levels, there are no such procedures,” she says. Sadly, even the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Bill passed last week, which awaits Presidential approval, fails to cover this large contingent of ‘scheme workers’, who are the visible face of the State’s welfare delivery mechanism.

Not implemented

All these years after the Visakha Guidelines mandated that all workplaces constitute a complaints committee, most sectors have ignored this. In fact, it also mandated that private employers should include these in their Industrial Employment (Standing Orders); this too has not been followed, Labour Department sources said.

A random survey of women workers, employed in professions varying from women-intensive sectors such as nursing and garment factories to industry work floors and BPO offices, reveal that workplaces continue to be fertile grounds for sexual harassment and violence. A majority of them said they weren’t aware of any committee and those who were said it was defunct.

On the contrary, most of the organisations contacted said they had implemented the guidelines, implying these are merely tall claims or that not enough had been done to create awareness. For instance, nurses working in a leading multi-speciality hospital here said that there was no grievance redressal mechanism that they had been told about, while members of the management claimed the committee had been conducting awareness programme. Saviya (24), a senior nurse, says when she reported to her shift lead nurse about constant harassment by a co-worker, she was asked to take the low-paying noon shift instead. Similarly, garment workers told that there was no committee, while union representatives say that many companies have complied “for namesake”.

Interestingly, almost all government offices — central and state governments — had sexual harassment cells and also appeared to invest in creating awareness on gender issues. This is a far cry from private offices, a majority of which have done nothing.

Inordinate delays

But it isn’t that things are hunky dory in institutions that have formed committees. Like in the case of the doctor at the elite Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore, currently pending in court, where the management delayed action on the inquiry report by the Gender Sensitivity Committee (GSC). She was terminated from service months after her written complaint, and nearly a year after she made two verbal complaints on the matter. “The GSC found him guilty, but the management refused to react till I went public with my complaint. The entire process was frustrating. I was constantly being threatened and accused of bringing down the reputation of the institute. It was as though I didn’t matter,” she said.

The new legislation, activists hope, will help shake up things given that it include punitive action (penalty of Rs. 50,000 and cancellation of permits for repeated non-compliance) if action is not taken within 90 days.

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