Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013

The issue of sexual harassment of women at workplace gained the degree of importance it deserved for the first time in the case titled Vishakha Vs. State of Rajasthan, decided by the Supreme Court in the year 1997. The Supreme Court took into consideration that alongwith the economy, the number of female employees were also growing at a never before scale and that they were vulnerable to the intentions of their dominating male superiors or colleagues. The outcome of this decision was a set of guidelines issued by the Supreme Court, which till the enactment of the present act, were the sole guiding rules to prevent and tackle sexual harassment at work place.

The act extends to any woman with respect to a workplace irrespective of the fact whether she is ‘employed’ there or not; thus interns, temporary employees, pat time workers or other such are covered by the act.

Acts of ‘Sexual harassment’ can be defined as any unwelcome behaviour towards a woman, including:

  • Physical contact or advances
  • Demand/request for sexual favours
  • Making sexually coloured remarks
  • Showing pornography

Sexual harassment at workplace relates the above mentioned activities, to the environment existing at a workplace, focusing on the moral, professional and emotional dominance a male colleague or superior exercises over a female employee. Sexual harassment at workplace thus includes:

  • Implied or express promise of preferential treatment by a female employee’s superior/employer
  • Implied or express threat of detrimental treatment by such a female employee’s superior/employer
  • Implied or express threat with respect to a female employee’s present or future employment
  • Interference with her job/creating hindrances in a female employee’s proper dispensation of her work or tasks or her existence at the workplace.
  • Meting out humiliating treatment to a female employee in the office or before her peers/colleagues.

So any implied or express preferential treatment or threat, the carrot or the stick, the lure of benefits or the fear of repercussions, which is directly or indirectly used to exert force upon a female employee, in order to subject her to the acts of sexual harassment willed by her male colleagues or superior, are directly covered under the act.

Every office, with a staff of more than 10 people and employing women, is required to constitute an “Internal Complaints Committee”, headed by a senior female employee, and is mandated under the act to look into any/every complaint made by any female employ or any other woman who has been subjected to sexual harassment in the said office.

The committee shall also have at least 2 members (could be more, as per requirement of the organization) from the organization, who have interest in the cause of women empowerment or have been associated with the same in the past and one member from any NGO working in the field of women empowerment. Thus the committee shall have a minimum of four members and by introducing a third party (NGO member), bias against the aggrieved woman from the staff of the organization is reduced to a minimum.

Every district has a “Local Complaints Committee”, to look into matters of the organizations which don’t have an Internal Complaint Committee. Thus an aggrieved woman cannot be denied a proper hearing merely because an organization is not able to establish an Internal Complaints Committee.

Complaint Procedure:

Any aggrieved woman can make a complaint in writing to the Internal Complaints Committee within 3 months of the incident or if it relates to a series of incidents of sexual harassment within 3 months of the last such incident. The said period of intimation is relaxed in event the aggrieved woman provides such sufficient reasons for the delay. If the woman is unable to make a complaint in writing, the committee members shall extend all possible help to the woman to ensure that her complaint is reduced in writing and available to the committee. In event the aggrieved woman is not able to make the complaint herself, her legal heirs, or anyone appointed on her behalf can do so, even posthumously.

If the woman so desires, the internal/local committee shall take steps to reconcile the matter between the aggrieved woman and the respondent/alleged offender. Though the same cannot be done at the request of the alleged offender. No settlement can be arrived which aims at compensating an offence in monetary terms. Every settlement so arrived between the parties, is recorded by the local committee and a copy is given to both the concerned parties.

In case no settlement is arrived, an inquiry is conducted by the committee, in accordance with the departmental rules governing the organization. If no such rules exist, the inquiry is conducted as per the procedure established by law. If a case is made out against the respondent/alleged offender, the committee is bound to file an FIR within 7 days of the conclusion of its inquiry.

It is also provided that an inquiry can be initiated by the committee, on request by the aggrieved woman, if a settlement is arrived at between the parties, but the alleged offender refuses to adhere to its terms.

To ensure any further emotional abuse or trauma to the aggrieved woman and to ensure that she being the most crucial evidence against the alleged offender is not tampered with, the committee can recommend a transfer, paid leave or any other relief as may be deemed fit for the safety and mental/physical/emotional protection of the aggrieved woman.

To protect the privacy and the identity of the victim, the contents of the complaint and the report are kept a secret, only available to the concerned parties and the same are also not covered under the ambit of the RTI Act.

The internal committee shall make a report of its findings and make it available to the concerned parties within 10 days of the complaint being received.

Apart from lodging an FIR with the police, the Internal Complaint Committee can order a lump sum compensation to the aggrieved woman, paid by the offender. It can also order a wage cut for the offender and the said deduction is given to the aggrieved woman as compensation.

Proper action is also prescribed, in accordance with the internal rules governing the organization, against a woman who lodges a false complaint, thus ensuring that the law doesn’t become a weapon of coercion in the hands of the female employees and is used judiciously, for the noble cause it was made. Same is the treatment defined for a witness giving false evidence before the committee.

The compensation made payable to the aggrieved woman is calculated on the basis of the following essential ingredients:

  • Mental trauma
  • Loss of career opportunity
  • Medical expenses
  • Income and financial status of the offender.

It is the enshrined duty of every employer to ensure a safe working environment for its female employees, organize workshops and other means to educate its employees of the same, and ensure a proper functioning of such a committee, allowing all possible assistance to the aggrieved women, as required. In event the employer doesn’t follow the guidelines as prescribed, he is also liable and can be fined up to the sum of Rs. 50,000/-