Sexual harassment is a harsh reality faced by women across the world. Complaints of sexual harassment are on the increase. Researches conducted by various NGO’s in Kerala shows that a good majority of working women are aware of this ‘unwelcome’ behavior of their male colleagues.  

Right to a safe Workplace is a woman’s right – says Supreme Court

In 1997 the Supreme Court recognized and addressed Sexual Harassment at workplace as systemic discrimination against women. The judgment created mandatory sexual harassment prevention guidelines for the workplace, applicable all over India. The knowledge and information about it can lead to a workplace free of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment injects the most demeaning sexual stereotypes into the general work environment and always represents an intentional assault on an individual’s innermost privacy.

What is sexual harassment at the workplace?

According to the Supreme Court order, sexual harassment is any unwelcome

  • Physical contact and advances
  • Demand or request for sexual favours
  • Sexually coloured remarks
  • Display of pornography
  • Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non verbal conduct of a sexual nature

Harassment can take the guise of banter or even take on of the form of unwelcome physical contact.

Basically it is any unwelcome words or actions of sexual nature. Examples:

  • In the absence of sexual favours a contractor denies payment of wages
  • Pornographic pictures are kept on desks or displayed at the workplace
  • Remarks are made about women’s personal appearance and dress.
  • A colleague tells off coloured jokes in the office that makes women feel uncomfortable

Who do these Supreme Court guidelines apply to?

All government and private sector organizations, hospitals, universities and the unorganized sector come under the purview of the guidelines. Women, who either draw a regular salary, receive an honorarium, of work in a voluntary capacity will in particular benefit from these guidelines.

Remedial Measures

All employers or responsible heads of institutions are to institute certain conduct rules and preventive measures to stop sexual harassment. The guidelines direct employers to set up procedures through which women can make their complaints heard.

A complaints committee headed by a woman, and of which at least half the members are women, should be formulated to look into complaints of sexual harassment. To prevent undue pressure from within the organization the committee should include a third party representative from a non-governmental organization (NGO) or any other individual conversant with the issue of sexual harassment. All complaints are to be handled in a confidential manner within a time bound framework. An annual report must be prepared and submitted to the concerned government department.

Preventive Measures

The guideline mentions preventive steps that should be taken by employer like:

  • An express prohibition of sexual harassment as defined above should be notified, published and circulated in appropriate ways.
  • Amendment of conduct and service rules to include sexual harassment as an offence and provide for appropriate discipline against the offender.
  • Including the aforesaid prohibitions in the standing orders the Industrial Employment (standing orders) act, 1946 in order to cover private employers.
  • Providing appropriate work conditions in respect of work, leisure, health and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at workplaces.

In addition to preventive and remedial measures the court has also stressed the need for awareness raising in the workplace

  • Employers should be allowed to raise issues of sexual harassment at workers meeting and in their appropriate forums
  • Sexual harassment should be affirmatively discussed in employer-employee meetings
  • The guidelines stressing the rights of women workers must be prominently notified.

These Supreme Court guidelines are legally binding and must be enforced.

What are the consequences of sexual harassment?

To the employer / institution:

  • Affects employee morale, there by, affecting the whole working ethos.
  • Other employees lose faith in your ability to lead, manage and stop unwanted behavior
  • Lower productivity leading to lost earnings
  • Loss of valued employees
  • Bad publicity and loss of image
  • Legal costs including litigation and lawyer’s fees
  • Loss of human hours in strategizing, and dealing with a harassment related situation
  • Ancillary costs like stationery, phone calls, etc.

To the recipient

  • Hits right at the heart of a person’s confidence, eating away their ability to do their job
  • May cause physical or mental, stress related illness
  • May cause absenteeism
  • Family life may suffer
  • May leave place of work
  • Lead to forced or illegal terminations

Employer’s responsibilities

The most effective way of dealing with sexual harassment in an institution on a long term comprehensive level is to devise and implement a sexual harassment policy, provide training for staff involved in the implementation of such a policy and to ensure that the policy is monitored

Make our workplace sexual harassment free zones.

The employer should

  • Develop procedures to be followed for investigating complaints of harassment, formation of complaints committee, composition of the committee, grades, etc.
  • Ensure strict maintenance of confidentially of the complainant and the witnesses
  • Ensure that the complaints and the witnesses will not be subjected to retaliation regardless of the outcome of the complaint.
  • Publish the policy and make copies available at the workplace. Discuss the policy with all new recruits and existing employees. Ensure that third party supplies/customers are aware of your anti-sexual harassment policy.
  • Conduct periodic training for all employees with active involvement of complaints committee
  • Carefully and conscientiously follow the policy formulated.

The Government of Kerala has made it mandatory that all Public Sector Undertakings,
Autonomous Bodies, Co-operatives etc. under the Government departments with staff strength
of 50 and above, should have complaints committees. The Committee should meet at least
once in 2 months and the minutes of the meetings should be recorded and maintained properly.
The meetings should be held even if there are no complaints to be looked into.

(Circular issued by the Government on 16.03.2006)

The Government of Kerala has amended Kerala Service Rules to include sexual harassment
at workplace as ‘misconduct’.  Industrial Disputes Act is also amended to this effect.

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Directorate of Social Welfare.
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