Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Silhouette Of Troubled Souls

According to the National Crime Records Bureau's Crime Clock for 2005, India reported crime every 17 seconds of which there was one case of crime against women every three minutes. And these figures are drawn by only recorded incidents of crime, meaning, a number of incidents go unnoticed and unrecorded. ‘Sexual harassment of women at workplace’ forms a major part of crime against women.
In search of a life with dignity
Every newborn child opens its eyes to discrimination: at first, if it's a girl or boy and then, on its colour, looks; at school, on its marks, parents’ financial status, school's name; in college, again its marks, dresses and 'coolness'; at work, it will be company's name, mode of transport, salary and what not.
Everyone is discriminated by everyone else in almost every walk of life and it seems as though humans can discriminate even without a reason. People have started to look for ways to prove themselves superior to others by any means possible, even if it is a matter of least significance. But there is one area which remains common regardless of birth, school, college or work — GENDER.
From the time one can remember and has been recorded, women have always been looked down upon and discriminated against the ‘superior male’ at home and workplace alike.
Many things have changed in the past few years, in terms of education, technology, science, etc., with everyone speaking of modernisation and development. In contrast to earlier days, women have now started to work, becoming financially independent and supporting their families, standing equal and in ways going ahead of their opposite sex. Sadly however, the society’s thinking towards women still remains same. Women are still being mistreated at home, society and at workplace.
Home apart, why are people so bent upon harassing women at work too? Aren't they too humans and have equal right to lead a life with dignity? Cases of higher officers and subordinates, in one way or the other, harassing women at work have come to light from time to time and many are yet to see the light.
The government, however, showed some signs of improving the situation with the 1997 verdict of Vishaka & others Vs State of Rajasthan & others. The Supreme Court defined sexual harassment as 'any unwelcome gesture, behaviour, words or advances that are sexual in nature' and passed a set of guidelines, some of them being:
  • It is the onus of the employer to include a rule in the company code of conduct for preventing sexual harassment.
  • Organisations must establish complaint committees that are headed by women.
  • Initiate disciplinary actions against offenders and safeguard the interests of the victim.
  • Female employees shall be made aware of their rights.
But even after this, very few cases were voiced out with few having knowledge of the existence of such a judgement. Our country still does not have proper laws to curb sexual harassment and hardly any organisation has implemented the guidelines or established committees to fight against this crime.
Few social organisations along with support from media are playing their part in working towards its implementation and creating awareness among women about their rights, giving a voice to their problems. Again, it is a very small section of our country's vast population.
Now, 13 years after the Vishaka verdict, 'The Prohibition of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill' has been approved to be presented in the Parliament. Even though it got over-shadowed by all the political drama taking place in our country and with the Parliament not having any successful session till now, a section of the society did spare a thought to this Bill (with the rest either unaware of it or just not bothered). It evoked mixed responses from both the genders, each trying to justify their points on whether the bill is necessary or not and about its effectiveness.
This is what a senior lady Advocate in city had to say: First when the Vishaka guidelines came out, there were a number of awareness programmes and speeches organised across the country. But it ended there and not much action was taken either by the organisations or government. On paper everything looks good. When a woman reads the Bill, she may feel happy seeing the provisions under it. However, when it comes to practically implementing a law, a lot of problems arise.There is much confusion in parts of the Bill and it seems incomplete. Maybe that's the reason why not many have taken note of it.
Any Act or Law can be used and misused. But how are you going to prove in cases pertaining to this Bill? If a girl is going through mental or physical harassment, no person will be kept as witness. Only circumstantial evidence and the background of the accused will be considered.
There is an example of a case wherein a girl complained to a committee in her office, reporting harassment by another employee. The committee heard what the accused had to say and conducted a departmental enquiry. The company however went in support of the accused and suspended the girl from work. When the girl went to court, the court ordered summons to the accused and he asked for a revision. The case is now pending in the High Court.
If a woman complains to her higher official regarding harassment at work and the complaint is not acknowledged, she can always file a private complaint, both against the person who harassed and the head of the organisation stating that the head, by not having a committee in the organisation, instigated the other person to do such an act. She can also file a suit to restrain the head from removing her from the job. But how far is all this practically possible? These cases may go on for years. It's not just enough if the woman stands up; she has to be supported by her co-workers.Also a parallel law has to be brought out which provides such women with alternative employment in case they are suspended or dismissed. Only then can they boldly voice out their problem, because in many cases the women will be the sole bread earners of their family. What we are speaking of concerns the urban parts, but what about rural women? At least women in city are becoming stronger but the rural women are not aware of the laws protecting them. Even if awareness programmes are created, attendance will be just for head counting. It has very little impact. There is a major lack of support, regardless of urban or rural society. Effective social and medical counseling has to be imparted at every level. Only then can some changes be seen. Facts apart and whether or not the Bill actually comes into action, there are a few questions regarding the above issue which have to be addressed by the public and the government.
People from various sectors gave their opinion regarding the matter. A few excerpts follow:
 
At University of Mysore
The University of Mysore has a Women Harassment Complaints Committee which started functioning in 2006 with an aim address harassment problems faced by students/ faculty. The Committee has 12 members including a lady Chairperson, a member from an NGO, lawyer, two male members, etc. and also an Enquiry Committee comprising 5 members. The Committee has the reputation of being very effective and has won praises at many workshops. The Secretary of the Committee spoke about the procedure followed and problems faced by the Committee in taking right action:
“Students are made aware of the Committee during orientation programme. First when any faculty/student comes to us with a complaint regarding harassment, we take down a written statement and call in the accused person to see what he has to say. If the accused accepts his mistake and we land in a suitable solution with the discussion, the case will be dropped. Else if the complainant wants further action, we probe into the case and see if the accused is really guilty. Out of the 25 cases (5 were anonymous) most have been proven and the accused has been found guilty. But the major problem we face is we do not have enough power to take action.
“Even though we submit a report about the guilty person we are not informed about the action taken. If this is the case how will the student feel safe to come and complain to us? After all it's their career which is at risk. Only with speedy enquiry and strict action against at least two accused, women will get confidence about our work.”
Another member of the Committee is from an NGO ‘Samatha’ and here is what she said: “The committee is very effective up to the level of enquiring into the case and finding the guilty. But once we submit the report it is the duty of the University to take necessary action. We have been told that the statutes of the University do not support necessary action. We have sent the revised statutes for approval which has been forwarded to the Governor. However there has been no response from the Governor's office.
“Beyond enquiries even our hands are tied. It's like Lokayukta, we have proved the crime but don't have power to take action. Apart from the University, not many colleges have such Committees. The University has to act responsibly in this matter and cooperate with the Committee. The government has to take serious action in this regard. Even the younger generation is not showing interest in such cases.”
An employee of a top IT company in city: “The Bill seems like a step forward. Even though I have personally never faced such problems, a few girls working with me have. We have an Internal Committee which works for causes related to the problems faced by women. They also conduct awareness programmes for the employees. However, many are not ready to stand up for themselves and complain. They should stop getting scared about their job security and approach the Committee with their problems.
“Action has been taken regarding such issues and one doesn't have to worry if they will have to face isolation. If each company has a Committee which will address such issues, then I guess half the problem will be solved.”
However, another employee of the same company remarked: “The committee does function but it is not easy for us to complain. The moment we do, the higher officials are informed about us and then we face isolation and get targeted by office members. All we get after complaining is mental harassment and it's difficult to work in such an environment. That is the reason many choose to remain quiet.”
A higher official at another company got into defensive mode when he was asked for his opinion by saying when a Committee does exist in their company it's upto the female employees to make use of it. It is assured that they will get justice and won't face any isolation. This was said when at least three out of five workers in the same place were hesitant to complain about the problems they were facing.
A young girl working in a small organisation: “My first few days at work were fine until I got to hear stories about the male employees of my organisation. Hearing stories apart, after some time even I had some bitter experiences. We don't have any committee to address problems faced by women. On one side I am feeling very uncomfortable with the behaviour of men towards me, but, on the other side, a few of the women have no problem with such inappropriate remarks and physical contact. Vulgar jokes and inappropriate touching are just some of the problems I face almost every day. When reported, I am told that it is ‘fatherly/brotherly behaviour,’ and not to mind it. I want to know which father would treat his daughter this way and also there is no need for the male employees to show any affection towards us as they are expected to behave professionally at work place.
“Even if I raise my voice and try to change things, nothing is happening. Will such a law be effective in an organisation like ours where people, men and women alike, just get along with such issues instead of addressing and solving them? I can always quit this place and move on. But situation may be the same in other places also. I want to stay here make a change. If the Bill is passed, I may get some help.”
A city college student: “We have a lecturer in our college who is a known offender. All other staff including the Principal know about him and it has been going on for years now. Recently a student was molested by him during an exam. She was bold enough to give a written complaint against him. Enquiries were conducted and reports have been submitted. Still no action has been taken. How will other girls get confidence if this is the situation? What more are we supposed to do?”
Contrasting voices for the same problem: A few top notch companies have taken effective measures to prevent harassment at work. But what about the smaller companies, organisations, students, research fellows, house maids and all those women who go to an office to get work done and have to face such unruly behaviour? Also, it is not enough to just have schemes and laws which protect harassed women, but the harassment itself should be stopped.
All the voices had one common solution — to change the system. Clean the society from grassroot level. The teaching should begin from home. Schools and colleges should take time out from the ‘race for marks’ and educate and inculcate morals in the students. They should have effective awareness programmes in a way which will interest and affect the mentality of the youth. If this is effectively done, problems may reduce at workplace along with the companies taking necessary measures to curb this filth which has haunted our country for ages.
Such a change may not happen overnight. But the start should be made now and at this very moment. Else, no matter how much our country may advance, if its people don't learn to respect Mothers, it is doomed to remain backward forever.

Story behind the Vishaka judgement:The Supreme Court guidelines in the case of Vishaka & others Vs. State of Rajasthan & others was brought out owing to the gang rape of one Bhanwari Devi by a group of Thakurs as she attempted to stop a child marriage in their family. Bhanwari Devi was a social worker at rural-level in a development programme initiated by the Government of Rajasthan, aiming to curb child marriages.
As part of her work, Bhanwari Devi tried to stop one Ramkaran Gujjar's minor daughter's marriage. The marriage, however, took place but Bhanwari Devi was not forgiven for her efforts to stop the same. She was subjected to social boycott, and in September 1992 was gang raped by five men including Ramkaran Gujjar in front of her husband. The only male doctor in the Health Centre refused to examine her and the doctor at Jaipur only confirmed her age without making any reference to rape in his medical report.At the Police Station, the women constables taunted her throughout the night. Past midnight, the Policemen asked Bhanwari to leave her lehenga behind as evidence and return to her village. She was left with only her husband's bloodstained dhoti to wear. Their pleas to let them sleep in the Police Station at night were also turned down.
The trial court acquitted the accused, but Bhanwari was determined to fight and get justice. She said that SHE HAD NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF AND THAT THE MEN SHOULD BE ASHAMED FOR WHAT THEY HAD DONE.
Her spirit inspired fellow saathins and women groups countrywide and they launched a campaign for justice to Bhanwari. On December 1993, the High Court said, “It is a case of gang rape which was committed out of vengeance.”This provoked women groups and NGOs to file a petition in the Supreme Court of India, under the name 'Vishaka', asking the Court to give certain directions regarding the sexual harassment that women face at the workplace. The result is the Supreme Court judgement, which came on Aug. 13, 1997, and the Vishaka guidelines.

Salient features of the Bill:
  • Sexual Harassment: Unwelcome sexually determined behaviour such as physical con-tact, advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography or making sexual demands, whether verbal, textual, graphic or electronic or by any other actions, which may contain — promise of preferential treatment in that employee's employment (or) threat of detrimental treatment in that employee' employment or an implied threat about the present or future employment status of that employee and includes the creation of a hostile working environment (or) the conduct interferes with an employee's work or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment (or) such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem.
  • Every woman shall have a Right to be free from Sexual Harassment and the Right to work in an environment free from any form of Sexual Harassment.
    No employer or any person who is a part of the management/ownership/supervisor/co-employee shall, sexually harass a female employee at the workplace, where she is employed/seeking employment; whether the harassment occurs in / at the workplace, or at a place where the said person has gone in connection with the work. Every employer/management of the workplace shall take all necessary and reasonable steps to prevent and ensure that no woman employed in the establishment is subject to Sexual Harassment by any third party during the course of employment.
    In cases where an employer-employee relationship does not exist it shall be the duty of the head of the body/institution to ensure that — No student or any person seeking admission to any such institution /professional body or a client is subjected to sexual harassment. An aggrieved woman shall have the Right to claim compensation from the defendant for any Sexual Harassment to which she may have been subjected to, in an appropriate Court of law.
    The court may for reasons impose a fine of not less than Rs.10,000 on any workplace which has failed to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)or opted to have been governed by the Local Complaints Committee (LCC) or failed to initiate action within a reasonable time. It shall be mandatory for every workplace to constitute an ICC as prescribed under this Act. The Committee shall be headed by a woman as Chairperson. It shall be the responsibility of the District Officer under this Act, to constitute a LCC, at the district level which will consist of at least four persons and a woman as Chairperson.
(Published in Star Of Mysore dated Nov. 27, 2010)

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