25/07/2016 6:30 PM IST | Updated 28/07/2016 1:47 PM IST

Sexual Harassment At Work: The Law Is On Your Side

Sexual harassment in the workplace
Sexual harassment in the workplace
Recently, the much celebrated climate scientist Dr. RK Pachauri was in the news for all the wrong reasons. People were shocked, including myself: I had interacted with him in the past and found him to be charming and courteous. Yet, somewhere along the way, this accomplished man was accused, with plenty of evidence to back the allegations, of sexual harassment at the workplace.

So, what are the laws protecting Indian women from sexual harassment? Enter the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. According to this law, sexual harassment includes one or more of the following:

i. Physical contact and advances

ii. A demand or request for sexual favours

iii. Making sexually coloured remarks

iv. Showing pornography

v. Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Where any of these acts are committed, directly or even by implication, and where the victim feels a threat to her safety or well-being, then it is tantamount to sexual harassment. Further, these acts also create a reasonable apprehension in the victim's mind that if she were to refuse or complain against such behaviour it would be disadvantageous for her in connection with her job. Basically, it could lead to her being denied a promotion or being sacked from the company or it could create a hostile work environment for her.

The punishment for sexual harassment is not just limited to a financial penalty and prosecution under the Indian Penal Code but also entails a loss of face.

This Act came into being after a PIL was filed against the State of Rajasthan and Union of India. The case (you can read about it in detail here) was extremely interesting as it was filed to ensure and enforce the fundamental rights of working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The facts of the case were extremely tragic. Bhanwari Devi, a social worker in Rajasthan was brutally gang raped for trying to stop a child marriage, which is already prohibited by law. The gang rape, perpetrated by upper caste men, was a way for them to teach her a lesson for trying to prevent a child marriage in their family. As a consequence of this, various women's groups under the common platform Vishaka filed a PIL. The petition resulted in what is popularly known as the Vishaka Guidelines. The judgement of August 1997 given by a bench of Justice Verma, Sujata Manohar and B.N. Kirpal provided the basic definitions of sexual harassment at the workplace and provided guidelines to deal with it. This was seen as a legal victory for women's groups.

The law was finally enacted in 2013. It ensures that preventive steps are taken and that companies instate procedures to resolve and address issues of sexual harassment at the workplace. Most MNCs now have to comply with the constitution of the Internal Complaints Committee as specified by law.

The punishment for sexual harassment is not just limited to a financial penalty and prosecution under the Indian Penal Code but also entails a loss of face. Dr. Pachauri, for example, has lost his job and will always be remembered for this shameful incident rather than his brilliant work.

This law is again a classic example of sociological behaviour dictating the evolution of laws.

What really causes men to force themselves on women is a question that doesn't have a straightforward answer. It could be a combination of flaunting your power and not being able to take a simple "no" as an answer. This kind of entitlement is common in patriarchal societies in particular. There is a belief that a woman's "no" actually means a "yes".

But the truth of the matter is that women at the workplace have the same goals as men -- to have a good career. A forced navigation through the treacherous territory of sexual harassment is something that they can well do without.