On Why It’s Not Enough for Sexual Harassment to be Illegal at Work

Its redressal has to be practically accessible — here are 5 ways you can enforce it.

Image Source

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013 by the Union Legislature of India. However, enforcement of the Act, though legally mandated, is still weak. A survey conducted by FICC-EY shows that 31% of the companies surveyed were not compliant with the Act, and 35% were unaware of the penal consequences for non-compliance.

There’s one thing that becomes increasingly clear when you look at these numbers — While the policy is in place, it is not visible or accessible enough. However, a policy is only as effective as its implementation, and right now, I posit that we need pressure from employees to enforce this implementation.

There’s also a nuance to implementing the provisions under the Act beyond just crossing things off a checklist in terms of what to do. It’s important to focus on how to do it, and why it is being done.

As a simple and commonly observed example, consider that instead of having face-to-face awareness programmes at the workplace on sexual harassment, the employer sends out a mail to all employees with a set of learning modules. Or let’s say the employer asks all employees to read the Anti-Harassment policy uploaded on the organization’s intranet. How many employees would actually take the pains to do this? And more importantly, how many would even understand all the nuances of it?

The Vishaka Guidelines recognize “each incident of sexual harassment” as a violation of the fundamental right to equality.

You have a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment, and a workplace that takes active measures to keep you safe.

So, in the context of poor implementation of the Act at most workplaces, here are 5 things you can do to empower yourself and stay prepared.

1st, acquaint yourself with the Act. You can read the handbook on it by the Ministry of Women and Child Development here. Most organizations with more than 10 employees are covered by the Act. So, learn about what your organization should be doing to comply with it.

2nd, familiarize yourself with your organization’s Internal Complaints Committee (ICC); an ICC is a redressal body that will conduct investigations into complaints on sexual harassment at the workplace. Find out who the members of your ICC are and how to contact them. Is all this information displayed prominently at your work premises? Are there an equal number of (or more) women on your ICC? Is there an external member on your ICC from an NGO/associations committed to the cause of women? The answer to all these questions should be Yes. If it isn’t, something is amiss (see below).

3rd, hold your organization accountable. Don’t see notice-boards displaying the penal consequences of sexual harassment at a conspicuous place at your workplace? Not having periodic awareness programmes being conducted for all employees? Then your organization isn’t complying with the law. Since the Act is relatively new, organizations might be ignorant of what it mandates. However, ignorance is never an excuse. You have the right to go up to your Management and ask them to implement the provisions under the Act. There are enough penal measures in place to ensure that organizations comply with it, from fines to conviction, and even cancellation of the company’s license (on repeat conviction). No organization wants to risk that, so demand that your Management implements the Act.

4th, find out who your District Officer is. Why? In the unlikely case that your Management refuses to comply with the Act after you approach them, you can always write to your District Officer. Your organization is mandated to submit an annual report to your District Officer on the cases of sexual harassment, which it probably isn’t doing if it isn’t complying with the Act in the first place. You can refer to the notification made by your State Government to know who your district officer is. If you cannot locate the notification, you can directly approach your Collector or Magistrate or their Deputies to seek clarification. Alternatively, you can file an RTI application to the above officers or the Women and Child Development Department.

5th, know how to approach your district’s Local Complaints Committee (LCC). Why? If your organization is still in the process of setting up an ICC, or you have a complaint against your employer and aren’t comfortable raising it within your organization, that’s okay, you can always file a complaint with your LCC. Once you have identified the relevant District Officer as above, you can approach the concerned office to locate the LCC of the area.

At the end of the day, it is your Management’s (and not your) responsibility to ensure that it not only implements provisions made for you under the law, but that it does so in the right manner. However, if that isn’t the case in status quo, pressure from your end can be a tactful tool to change it. Remember — It is not enough for sexual harassment to be theoretically illegal at work; its redressal has to be practically accessible.

Radhika Radhakrishnan is researcher working on gender, an alumnus of Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course, and a winner of the MS Bharatha Iyengar Award for the same.