Legislation alone is not enough

Treating women as equal requires a cultural shift, not laws. Very often this shift filters down from the top, but women do not have a presence there. As the world observes Women’s Day today, a close look at the issues of safety and equality.

In the next few days, a new Statute will be in place, meant to grant protection to women at the workplace. This legislation has been long overdue, since the Supreme Court issued guidelines in Visakha versus State of Rajasthan (1997) pertaining to sexual harassment of women at the workplace. For women, going out to work has become a necessity. It automatically leads to a greater vulnerability in terms of their safety.

In a society which has failed to provide safety to its women within the four walls of their homes, how can they be safe outside, particularly at workplaces, which for ages have been dominated by men? Now since women have invaded the public spaces, the number game has changed drastically.

The man-woman ratio has been transformed in favor of the latter but that in no way implies that women have been accepted in their new avatar by men, who have been used to having only men around in places like offices, banks, factories, educational institutions, buses, trains, restaurants and hotels etc. What is still more important is that though women are today found in great numbers at all these places, they continue to be dominated by men who generally happen to be occupying superior places, dominating them as their bosses, teachers and so on.

Men have been placed in public spaces for ages, as a consequence of which they feel quite comfortable there, joking around with each other, gossiping, spending time together and staying back at workplaces late hours without any hassles. For women however being at public spaces is a relatively novel experience. Most of the times, there is a “chilly climate” at the workplace, with men cracking dirty jokes, commenting on the dress of the women, indulging into a gendered talk, completely oblivious of the embarrassment caused by their so called ‘natural’ behavior towards women around them. Being a part of patriarchal social structure, women in such situation fail to make out whether the behavior is intentional or not.

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Men too fail to understand when a ‘friendly’ behavior turns into an act of ‘sexual harassment’. It is in this context that the new legislation assumes immense significance in that it clearly defines sexual harassment by including not only an overt behavior amounting to sexual harassment, but even gestures and suggestive behavior and language that cause humiliation to a woman and makes her feel uncomfortable.

More importantly, it puts the whole responsibility of protecting women from such situations on the ’employer’, giving a very broad definition of ‘workplace’, including even a dwelling place or household employing domestic help.

Workplace includes any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment including transportation provided by the employer for undertaking such journey. The legal provision covers both organized as well as the unorganized sectors of employment. It has mandated an Internal Committee for the redressal of complaints of sexual harassment by employees as also for preventing such acts. It also mandates the inclusion of a ‘third party’ in the Committee, which provides teeth to the redressal mechanism.

The question however remains as to whether such a Statute is sufficient to protect women from sexual harassment at workplace? I am sure it can’t be! Suppose an organization constitutes an Internal Committee to register complaints, investigate these and do justice.

The mere existence of a Committee is meaningless unless it consists of members who are gender sensitive and have the courage to call a spade a spade. It is foolish to assume that victims will automatically approach the Committee with their complaint.

In a society with a ‘culture of silence’ is it easy for a woman to come forward and register a formal complaint especially at the workplace? For that to happen, she must have faith in the system. Most unfortunately, as a member of such a Committee, I have come across people, most educated and sophisticated, calling it a “Sex Committee” and ridiculing it. The question is, are we mature enough to understand the utility and import of such a legal provision? The proposed Bill is based upon certain assumptions, i.e. women are more gender sensitive than men; cases of sexual harassment shall be reported to this Committee and justice shall be delivered as per law.

But actually, none of these assumptions is correct in itself. Even if it is mandatory to have this Committees headed by a woman, it is most important for the employer to ensure that this woman is gender sensitive.

The Committee must not exist just as a decorative entity. It must function with commitment, clarity and courage, without any interference of authorities or political interests. I apprehend that out of the fear of law, most of the organizations shall constitute Internal Committees on paper, to show a compliance with law, whereas it is ensured that no case of sexual harassment is reported and if reported, it is made to fizzle out without any intention of justice delivery. Actually, for the full potential of women to be realized, it is extremely important to provide them a work environment where they feel absolutely comfortable and safe.

The well meaning organizations will ensure that an Internal Committee as per law is not only in place, but it functions, where victims of sexual abuse can approach it fearlessly, with a trust that justice shall be delivered to them. In the absence of these sureties, this legal provision shall just be another piece of law, to be twisted and manipulated by those in power. Let the institutions of higher learning be the leaders in this case!

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