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Zero Tolerance is the Key

Aarti Aarti
17 Apr 2023
The She-Box or the online complaint management system developed by Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2019

A student arrested for sexual harassment of woman professor; a railway ticket checker booked for sexually harassing female passenger; a woman teacher at correctional home booked for sexual harassment of inmate; a finance head of private firm arrested for sexually harassing woman employee; a coach booked for sexual harassment of teenage girls at academy. While it is rather disconcerting that such news as above seems to be emerging, the two horrifying incidents that reportedly took place at the Indraprastha College for Women (IPCW) in Delhi, and the Kalakshetra Foundation (KF) in Chennai depict that sexual harassment is obviously alive despite the enactment of a separate legislation aimed at providing protection to working women.

What exactly is sexual harassment? Briefly put, it includes any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication) namely: (i) physical contact and advances; (ii) a demand or request for sexual favours; (iii) making sexually coloured remarks; (iv) showing pornography; (v) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Having its roots in the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment (Vishaka & others vs State of Rajasthan & others on) of 13 August 1997, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“SH Act”) came into existence across India from December 9, 2013. Notably, while delivering the Vishaka judgment, the Apex Court directed the following preventive steps should be taken by all employers or persons in charge of work place both in the public as well as the private sector to prevent sexual harassment. 

(a) Express prohibition of sexual harassment as defined above at the work place should be notified, published and circulated in appropriate ways. 

(b) The Rules/Regulations of Government and Public Sector bodies relating to conduct and discipline should include rules and regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and provide for appropriate penalties in such rules against the offender. 

(c) Private employers should take steps to include the aforesaid prohibitions in the standing orders under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946. 

(d) Appropriate work conditions should be provided in respect of work, leisure, health and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at work places and no woman employee should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.

As the very purpose of the SH Act, 2013 is to provide protection to working women, sexual harassment cases are dealt under Section 354A and 509 of the Indian Penal Code in respect of acts like (i) physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; (ii) a demand or request for sexual favours; (iii) showing pornography against the will of a woman; (iv) making sexually coloured remarks. This also includes any word uttered, or sounds or gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman. Section 354A is punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both. Those convicted under Section 509 are liable to be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years plus fine.

Even as investigations are underway in IPCW, what we know so far is that on March 28, when the students were participating in the annual festival, a group of men entered the premises of the Institution by scaling its boundary walls and began harassing them for over two hours. The Delhi University constituted Committee which is probing the incident is expected to unravel what exactly happened during the course of the annual festival. IPCW is said to have filed a police complaint on the alleged trespass and harassment of women students after it received around 230 complaints and representations from its students.

Regarding KF, it was founded by legendary “cultural ambassador” Rukmini Devi Arundale. She pioneered in creating dances and plays. When she gave her first performance at the open air Adyar Theatre (of the Madras Theosophical Society) in 1935 at the age of 31, many were mesmerized by the spiritual quality of her dance. It is said that a Bishop who attended the performance wrote that he felt as if he had been “present at a benediction ceremony”. 

In 1977, when the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai offered the chair of the President of India to Rukmini Devi, she politely declined. As a member of the Rajya Sabha she was instrumental in passing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. After Rukmini Devi passed away, the Government of India took over Kalakshetra and through an Act of the Parliament it has been functioning as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India since 1993.

KF saw massive protests from students of Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts in March this year. With the protesting students raising multiple allegations of sexual harassment against four faculty members, they have been removed by the authorities. Based on a sexual harassment complaint filed by a survivor (an alumni of the college), Hari Padmam, an assistant professor who went missing, has since been arrested and is in judicial custody. More recently, his bail application has been rejected by a local Court. Hari Padmam’s wife, in her complaint against the victim and two teachers at the Institute, has alleged that her husband’s arrest was based on a false complaint.

Being an Institute under the control of the Union Government, the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women was the first to visit KF. According to news reports, NCW had wound up its probe and asked the Tamil Nadu DGP to investigate the matter. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin who visited the KF campus and held talks with the students as well as the management had assured on the floor of the State Assembly that appropriate legal action would be taken if charges were confirmed in the investigation. The Tamil Nadu State Women’s Commission which probed into the matter is said to have asked the State Government to take legal action on KF. Reportedly, KF initially denied having received any sexual harassment complaints as per guidelines, but later constituted a Committee of Inquiry led by a retired Judge, Justice K Kannan and includes former Tamil Nadu DGP Letika Saran and Dr Shobha Varthaman, a medical doctor who has worked with international NGOs. The report is awaited.

Indraprastha College and Kalakshetra cases, still being debated, are just a tip of the iceberg but the cause for concern is that insult to the modesty of women at office premises is a growing worry. As per figures published by the National Crime Record Bureau, out of 52,759 sexual harassment cases registered during the period 2019-2021, the total number of cases registered under the category insult to the modesty of women at office premises was 1407.

To deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, especially in the Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs), campuses in these matters are governed by the University Grants Commission (Prevention, Prohibition and Redress of sexual harassment of women employees and students in higher educational institutions) Regulations, 2015. All other cases are dealt under the SH Act, 2013. Thirty-eight cases of sexual harassment were reported in HEIs across the country, during 2021-22 of which 36 were disposed of and two were pending for more than 90 days. Nearly 216 awareness generation programmes against sexual harassment were held during the said period. 

Last December UGC issued fresh guidelines for basic facilities and amenities for a safe, secure environment for Women and Women cells for sensitization, policy implementation, monitoring and grievance redressal in HEIs. Among others, campuses/its adjoining areas should be well-lit and under CCTV coverage. Sports, other playgrounds and public parks should have flood lights. All buildings, open public spaces, other infrastructural amenities including transport, restrooms, footpaths, entry and exits should be friendly for specially abled students. Sufficient number of female security guards hired from credible security firms should be deployed. Students are to be provided with a handbook at the time of admission containing detailed information about rules and regulations regarding proper conduct and behaviour expected of them. The handbook must also mention important helpline numbers like that of student counsellors, anti-ragging cell, proctor office, medical emergencies, health centre, canteen and other university authorities to be approached in case of need.

The She-Box or the online complaint management system developed by Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2019 is aimed at facilitating the registration of complaints related to sexual harassment of women at workplace. Once a complaint is submitted to the She-Box portal, it directly reaches to the concerned authority having jurisdiction to take action in the matter. Last year a special drive was carried out to review all pending cases of sexual harassment in central government ministries and departments.

As sexual harassment is a result of unchecked power, armed with the Vishaka Judgement and the SH Act, 2013 there ought to be a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual harassment of women. It needs to be realised that punishment can prevent a crime and as research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.

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