As more women enter the organised workforce in India, issues faced by women are also rising at workplaces, especially when it comes to sexual harassment from male colleagues. In fact, with the #MeToo movement announcing itself in India last year, more women are coming forward and unmasking their harassers – no longer keeping quiet.
Any form of physical advance/contact, as well as demanding sexual favours, definitely fall within the definition of sexual harassment. Seeking sexual favours in return for better employment benefits, preferential treatment or with a threat of negative consequences on your employment status also amount to sexual harassment.
Very rarely does a strong warning keep a harasser on guard. But there are other ways for women to fight sexual harassment at the workplace. The first move is to file a complaint with the internal complaints committee (ICC), a government-mandated body in every firm that has more than 10 employees.
What the law says
Complaints to the ICC must be registered within three months of the last instance of sexual harassment. The law demands that you submit six copies of your complaint, supporting documents, and the names and addresses of your witnesses. However, if you miss three consecutive hearings held by the ICC, your complaint shall be terminated. The law also prohibits bringing legal practitioners into the proceedings.
After your complaint is initiated, you are legally allowed to request the ICC to restrain the harasser from reporting on your work performance or even supervising you. You are also eligible to ask for a transfer for you or your harasser, or grant you a paid leave for three months in addition to the leaves you already have.
The law also protects your privacy during and after ICC proceedings and punishes people who reveal the contents of your complaint, including your identity or address, the inquiry made by the ICC, any action taken by the employer, or/and any recommendations given by the ICC. You can also go for an appeal if the ICC orders that there has been no sexual harassment or if you are unhappy with the punishment given to the harasser.
If you do not trust your company’s ICC or if your company does not have one, another option is to file an FIR at the local police station or file a private complaint to the Magistrate. If your complaint is proven, you are entitled to compensation from your harasser. The amount of compensation is decided based on the emotional distress you experienced, loss in professional opportunities due to the harassment, your financial status, etc.
What constitutes sexual harassment
The Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, aka PoSH Laws, identify any “unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature”, or/and making “sexually coloured remarks” as sexual harassment.
Point to note: an element of sexual undertone must be present for it to be construed as sexual harassment. It is equally possible for one to be in a hostile work environment (purely on account of negative work culture) without any form of sexually implicit unwelcome conduct.
Other than the above-mentioned instances, workplace sexual harassment also includes sexually suggestive comments (or acts like catcalling) about a person's clothing, body, and/or sexual activities, unwelcome social invitations with sexual overtones, display of sexually explicit written or audio-visual materials like pornographic posters, cartoons, drawings, books, magazines, SMS, WhatsApp message, or e-mails.
In addition, continuous idle chatter of a sexual nature (even over the telephone) or invasion of personal space (like cornering someone), and stalking, come under the same category. Lewd gestures indicating sexual activity, leering or ogling with suggestive overtones, attempted rape or rape, and display of body part(s) are also defined as sexual harassment.
Also, workplace sexual harassment covers not just the office space but the cafeteria, office cab, etc. where a woman visits on account of her job.
The right to work without harassment is a basic human right, one of the many that are often denied to women. Every time you stand up and speak up, more women gain the courage to follow suit and fight the supremely patriarchal injustice meted out to women all over the world.
It is the responsibility of every employee, rather than just the employer, to provide a safe space for women employees.