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Sexual Harassment-MeToo Movement

Sexual Harassment-MeToo Movement

CONTEXT:

  • Eight years into a law on sexual harassment at the workplace, we are still miles away from a “survivor-centred” approach.

                                         

Priya Ramani v. M.J. Akbar Case:

  • In February 2021, a trial court acquitted Priya Ramani in the criminal defamation case filed by her former boss and editor-turned-politician, MJ Akbar

    • She had accused him of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement in 2018.

  • “Irreparable harm” to reputation: Depositions made in support of Akbar stated that Ramani’s testimonial caused “irreparable harm” to Akbar’s reputation.

    • Whereas Ramani’s recounting of her experience of sexual harassment was labelled as “malicious” and “scandalous”.

  • Established famous personality: It is curious how, Accused and their supporters are quick to establish how skilled the accused was in the field of journalism, law, humanitarian aid, filmmaking etc.

    • They may have been great professionals, but what is being scrutinised is unwelcome sexual behaviour, which left women feeling violated and unsafe.

  • Absence of Adequate Mechanisms: In Priya Ramani’s case, the Court acknowledged the absence of adequate mechanisms under legal guidelines and legislation

    • To report sexual harassment

    • At the time of the alleged incidents.

Three significant observations by Court in Priya Ramani Case:

  1. “It cannot be ignored that most of the time, the offence of sexual harassment is committed behind closed doors or privately”

  2. “The woman cannot be punished for raising voice” as the “right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of a woman” and

  3. “The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice, even after decades”.

This historical judgment is indeed a turning point for survivors of sexual harassment.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF WORKPLACE HARASSMENT LAWS IN INDIA.

  1. 1992-Bhanwari Devi Case, 1992: Some men from dominant castes gang raped Bhanwari Devi for preventing a child marriage in their family as part of her work.

    • Women’s groups came together to file a PIL to assert women’s right to safety at work.

  2. 1997-Vishaka vs. Rajasthan, 1997: Supreme Court laid down guidelines affirming the

    • Fundamental right to equality,

    • Fundamental right to life and

    • Fundamental right against discrimination for working women.

  3. Vishakha Guidelines: Above case laid guidelines in the absence of a legislation, required workplaces and institutions to ensure the prevention of sexual harassment.

    • The guidelines defined

      • Sexual harassment in the context of work,

      • Duties of the employer, and

      • Preventive steps  

  4. Complaint Mechanism and a Complaints Committee: Independence by having an external member, conversant with the issue of sexual harassment.

  5. 2012-Medha Kotwal case, 2012: Supreme Court recognised that

    • “Women still struggle to have their most basic rights protected at workplaces” and that 

    • The Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010, was still pending.

    • Court accepted that a woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her at work or create a hostile work environment.

  6. 2013: The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed by the Parliament.

  7. 2013- Criminalisation of Sexual crimes: After 2012 Delhi gang rape, became the turning point in Indian legal history, amendments were made to the criminal law in 2013.

    • “Sexual harassment” “Stalking” and “Voyeurism”, were criminalised which is an important step in understanding the gravity of its impact on women.

ISSUES IN PREVENTING SEXUAL HARRASMENT:

  1. Cultural shift in treatment of survivors: is demanded otherwise they would continue to fear for their physical safety, their job security and their mental health.

  2. Due processes: Evidence shows that due processes meant to protect survivors and help them access justice, leave survivors feeling betrayed.

  3. Silence through Shifting blame: Shifting blame on the survivor or making veiled accusations during the inquiry process coerces them into silence and unjustifiably puts the burden of proof back on the victim.

    • As Priya Ramani expressed that despite being a victim of sexual harassment, she had to stand in Court as the accused.

  4. Lip service, hollow statements: Supreme Court in the Medha Kotwal judgment acknowledged, “Lip service, hollow statements and inert and inadequate laws are not enough for true and genuine upliftment of our half most precious population – the women”.

  5. Power structural disadvantage: If the perpetrator has impunity due to his power position, it leads to a structural disadvantage for the survivors, making their path to justice treacherous.

    • If the respondent is a senior manager and you are a junior contractual employee, you would be at a disadvantage based on the organisational hierarchy.

WAY FORWARD:

  1. Institutional responsibility: Unless organisations across sectors take institutional responsibility for an attitudinal shift, workplaces will continue to be sexualised and toxic.

  2. Serious attempt by Employer: It is critical for employers to make a serious attempt

    • At understanding power relations among its employees,

    • To raise sensitivity towards survivors,

    • Ensure a safe space to report and catalyse cultural change.

  3. Anti-sexual harassment policy: A critical first step for employers, encompassing measures to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.  

  4. Complaints mechanism: In line with the 2013 law, there must be a complaints mechanism in place that ensures integrity and fairness in inquiry processes.

  5. Whistleblower protection: It should have strong measures on whistleblower protection to enable survivors to share their experience(s) or for bystanders to provide witness testimonials.

  6. Psychosocial care and legal services: Employers should also help survivors to access essential services like these.

SOURCE:  INDIAN EXPRESS