Job well begun

Parliament has passed a bill protecting women from sexual harassment in the workplace. It has been long in the making, after the landmark Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan judgment of 1997, which, for the first time, laid out guidelines to address the problem. This bill also frames workplace sexual harassment in terms of the constitutional principles it violates — the right to life and personal liberty, equality, as well as the way it presents a barrier to employment.

The bill drew on suggestions from civil society. It now includes all categories of working women, including those in the unorganised sector, such as domestic workers. Workplaces that fall in the organised sector will have to set up internal committees headed by women to monitor sexual harassment. The unorganised sector will be covered by a district committee, under the collector. Failure to comply with grievance procedures is now a punishable offence for employers. Under the proposed law, harassment could be taken to be unwelcome sexually determined behaviour, direct or implied, sexually tinged remarks, showing pornography — anything that closes off work opportunities or creates a hostile environment. The default will be in the complainant's favour, because eyewitnesses may be hard to find. Women will also be compensated for the damage to their careers from reporting these incidents.

This bill has critics at both ends of the spectrum. Some argue it should have included all kinds of gender-based bias. Many point out that penalties for those who make false allegations could undercut the law in practice. Some question the fact that harassment is not conceived as a gender-neutral offence. Others warn that sexual harassment committees could end up causing a hyper-cautious and sterile work environment. The success of the law depends on how it is used. But this law will make all the difference to countless women who face institutional denial and hostility when they report sexual misconduct. Having structures of recourse on a woman's side is necessary, so that she does not have to depend on the decency of employers or support of peer groups. This law is one more blow for equal rights, at a time when anti-women assumptions are being questioned after the Delhi gangrape.

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