Workplace Sexual Harassment: An Aspect of Every Working Woman
“When women support women, incredible things happen”– Viola Davis
In 1997, various women’s groups led by Naina Kapur filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the State of Rajasthan and the Central Government of India to enforce Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India after Bhanwari Devi (a social worker in Rajasthan) was brutally gang raped for stopping a child marriage. The Supreme Court stipulated the Vishaka Guidelines for sexual harassment and in line of those guidelines, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013. The act broadened the scope and reach of the Vishaka Guidelines.
What is Sexual Harassment?
The POSH 2013 Act defines Sexual Harassment as “any one or more” of “unwelcome acts or behavior” committed directly or indirectly:
- Physical Contact and Advances
- A demand or request for sexual favors
- Sexually colored remarks
- Showing Pornography
- Any other form of unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature
The Vishaka Guidelines
Bhanwari Devi, a Rajasthan State Government employee, tried to prevent child marriage as part of her duties as a social worker of the Women Development Programme. The landlords of the Gujjar community were very angry that a ‘lowly woman from a poor potter community’ had the ‘guts’ to act against child marriage and wanting to ‘teach her a lesson’ raped her several time. She was denied justice from the Rajasthan High Court and the rapists were acquitted. This led to several women’s groups and NGOs to file a PIL in the Supreme Court under the collective banner of Vishaka. The case was filed for the “absence of domestic law occupying the firld, to formulate effective measures to check the evil of sexual harassment of working women at all work places.”
This led to the formulation of the Vishaka Guidelines and subsequently the establishment of the guidelines into an Act called the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
POSH: Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal)
The act came into effect on 2013 and mandates every employer to “provide a safe working environment at the workplace which shall include safety from person coming into contact at the workplace”
It also mandates that every organization and workplace must establish an internal committee along with external members constituting the following members:
- A woman presiding officer
- At least two members from the employees
- An external member (from an NGO or committed to the causes of women’s right)
The Internal Committee must be constituted by an order in writing and must strive to spread awareness in the organization. It states that at least one half of the members must be women and that the term of each Internal Committee must be three years.
The Handbook on Sexual Harassment in Workplace
The Ministry of Women and Child Development published a ‘Handbook on Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace’ with detailed instances of “unwelcome behavior” that would constitute sexual harassment broadly including:
- Sexually suggestive remarks or innuendos;
- Serious or repeated offensive remarks;
- Inappropriate questions or remarks about a person’s sex life;
- Display of sexist or offensive pictures;
- Intimidation, threats, blackmail around sexual favors etc.
The Handbook defines “unwelcome behavior” as an experience when the victim feels bad or powerless; it causes anger or sadness or negative self-esteem. Unwelcome behavior is illegal, demeaning, invading, one-sided and power based.
Illustrations and Examples of Sexual Harassment at Workplace
The podcast Know Your Kanoon at IVM Podcasts in its first episode hosts about examples from real cases that can be considered as sexual harassment at workplace. Further the Handbook published by the Ministry of Women and Child Development also puts forth these examples, including:
- Physical contact such as touching, pinching, caressing, kissing or fondling someone against their will
- Invasion of personal space, like getting too close for no reason
- Persistently asking someone out despite being repeatedly turned down
- Controlling a person’s life by rumor-mongering about her private life etc.
The Kerala High Court on March 17, 2013 asked organisations associated with the film industry to form a committee to deal with cases of sexual harassment against women in accordance with the POSH Act. During the controversial #MeToo movement, women in India too to social media and online platforms calling out several influential men – actors, standup comedians, senior journalists, film-makers and even ministers- for sexual harassment.
Safe workplace is the basic of human rights. Though there have been Acts and Rules provided for the safekeeping of women, there still seems to be various cases of sexual harassment at workplace being reported. Thus, it is vital to be aware of the rules that protect women at workplace and help those who are in need of it. It is every woman’s right to be provided a safe and secure working environment free from abuse or unwanted sexual harassment.
Public Interest Litigation, dhristiias (23 Dec., 2019) https://www.drishtiias.com/to-the-points/Paper2/public-interest-litigation
 Anshularbaz, Sexual Harassment at Workplace, Legal Services India http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/716/Sexual-Harassment-at-Workplace.html
Vishaka and Ors. v. State of Rajasthan and Ors., AIR 1997 SC 3011
 The rules for the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 http://gptsoraba.in/english/doc/vishakaguidelines.pdf
 POSH at Work, https://poshatwork.com/
 Tamilarasu, Workplace Sexual Harassment, vikaspedia, https://vikaspedia.in/social-welfare/women-and-child-development/women-development-1/policies-and-acts-1/sexual-harassment-of-women-at-workplace/workplace-sexual-harassment
 Amber Rana, Sexual Harassment at the Workplace, IVM Podcasts (22 Aug., 2018) https://shows.ivmpodcasts.com/show/know-your-kanoon-RSsRg1iPV6PayT03/episode/ep-01-sexual-harassment-at-the-workplace-IDaSeu12L8RAPG7b?startTime=0