Ending discrimination: On the Union of India and Others vs Ex. Lt. Selina John case 

Workplaces must ensure fair treatment of woman employees 

February 22, 2024 12:10 am | Updated 03:33 pm IST

The Supreme Court of India has come out heavily against another archaic idea with patriarchal overtones by observing that rules which penalise women employees for getting married are unconstitutional. “Terminating employment because the woman has got married is a coarse case of gender discrimination and inequality. Acceptance of such [a] patriarchal rule undermines human dignity, right to non-discrimination and fair treatment.” The observations were part of an order which upheld the rights of Selina John, a former lieutenant and Permanent Commissioner Officer in the Military Nursing Service, who was discharged from service in 1988 for getting married. A Bench headed by Justice Sanjiv Khanna directed the Union Government to pay Ms. John ₹60 lakh in compensation within eight weeks. The government had appealed in the top court against a decision of the Lucknow Bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal which had ruled in her favour in 2016. Pointing out that her dismissal was “wrong and illegal”, the Court noted that the rule against marriage was applicable only to women nursing officers. Women have been fighting a long and uphill battle for gender parity in the Army — they were granted permanent commission after judgments in 2020 and 2021. Words to the effect that the Indian Army is encouraging more women to join the forces have to be backed by deeds.

It is not that the civilian space is much better off, and women are often asked uncomfortable personal questions at job interviews. They are quizzed about future plans on marriage and motherhood. If labour participation of women in the workforce has to increase — in the latest Periodic Labour Force data (October-December 2023), India’s is at an abysmal 19.9% for women of all ages — then barriers in education, employment, and opportunities, not to talk of bullying mindsets, have to be broken down. It is a fact that many girls, especially among the poor, have to drop out of school for various reasons, from economic to lack of proper toilets. The UN’s Gender Snapshot 2023 had provided a grim picture of where the world is on gender parity, pointing out that if course correction measures are not taken, the next generation of women will still spend a disproportionate amount of time on housework and duties compared to men, and stay off leadership roles. The schemes routinely announced by the government for girls and women will mean little on the ground if they have to abide by restrictive social and cultural norms. The Court’s words that rules making marriage of women employees and their domestic involvement a ground for disentitlement are unconstitutional should be heard by all organisations so that the workplace becomes an enabler, and not a hurdle.

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