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India’s president last week signed into law the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, which had been passed by both houses of parliament earlier this year.
This law comes at a time when Indian authorities have been facing increasing public anger over incidents of rape across the country, particularly after the death of a 23-year-old student who had been gang raped in Delhi in December.
While India already has laws against rape and sexual molestation, the recently passed law is the country’s first dedicated to sexual harassment at work. It definessuch harassment broadly as unwelcome physical contact and making “sexually colored” remarks and includes any behavior that interferes with a woman’s work, creates an intimidating, offensive or hostile work environment for her.
As more and more women join the workforce in India, sexual harassment at work has become a growing problem. A 2010 survey of 600 female employees in India’s information technology and outsourcing industry found that 88% of them had faced some form of sexual harassment at work. In most cases, the perpetrator was a superior at work, according to the survey conducted by the Centre for Transforming India, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization.
The new law is meant to prevent such harassment and provide an avenue for women to have their complaints resolved, but activists say it falls short on several fronts.
“It’s badly drafted. What they gave us is mediocrity,” says Naina Kapur, a New Delhi-based lawyer who works on human rights and workplace discrimination cases. The law requires that all companies and employers who have more than 10 employees, constitute an “Internal Complaints Committee” to which an aggrieved woman can take her complaint. This committee, which must be headed by a senior female employee, is supposed to try initially to get the complainant and accused to reach a settlement and only launch an investigation in the case if mediation fails.
Critics object to this provision requiring conciliation before an inquiry. This is “yet another way in which the dignity of women is undermined,” according to a report on women’s safety by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma released earlier this year.
If harassment is proved, the law leaves it up to the internal committee to decide a monetary fine to be paid by the perpetrator, depending on their “the income and financial status”.
So, a low-level executive will likely pay a lower fine for harassment than a senior executive, says Albeena Shakil, a women’s rights activist from New Delhi.
The law doesn’t define the range of financial penalties.
Activists say the prescribed mechanism of filing complaints is too bureaucratic and could deter women from coming forward.
Worse, they say, is a provision in the law that calls for punishment for making a false complaint. Women with legitimate grievances may keep quiet, fearing that they will not be able to prove their allegations and may instead be hounded for making false claims, says Suneeta Dhar, director at Delhi-based women’s group Jagori.
Finally, activists note that while the new law starts by advocating prevention of sexual harassment, it dilutes the responsibility of the employer in preventing it. Since the fine for an offence has to be paid by the employee, it doesn’t give companies much incentive to take active steps to create a harassment-free environment at work, say activists.
The penalty for not setting up the internal committee is a maximum of 50,000 rupees ($919).
In the U.S., women can sue their companies for turning a blind eye to sexual harassment and get compensation of up to $300,000, depending on the size of the company.
The Indian law also extends to women in the unorganized sector, such as domestic workers and day laborers.
But here too activists say the legislation is not strong enough to empower these women and even if it were the question of how to enforce it in informal, unregulated workplaces would remain.