Workplace sexual harassment is an abuse of authority against the women’s workforce. Those who initiate harassment at work just want to reinstate their ‘power and control’ over the women professionals. In this imbalanced power dynamics, professional women in India are denied the ‘equality of status and opportunity’ at work. They may feel subjected daily to derogatory remarks and lots of negative influences which hamper their productivity. In this unwelcome cycle of gender discrimination at work, many women in India give up their jobs or change their career fields. They feel stigmatised and fail to take ‘the right steps at the right time’.
But now, women in India need not ‘suffer in silence’ anymore. They should not feel ‘powerless’, as our country’s legal framework has stringent laws and rules to restore the rights of working women. They must raise their voice against harassment and make India a progressive and gender-equal country.
But the underlying question here is ‘Do women in India know about such laws and coping mechanisms in great detail?’ Or do they know what to do in the case of sexual harassment at work? To give an accurate picture to the growing women workforce in India, let us first analyse what constitutes sexual harassment at work.
What is covered under sexual harassment?
It is shocking to know that millions of Indian women lack the proper knowledge of what the definition of being sexually harassed definition is. They do not know how to differentiate between subtle and extreme forms of sexual harassment at work. Many women think that threats and unwanted physical advances are a part of workplace harassment and choose to ignore the subtle signs and signals. But the signs and symptoms that may be subtle in the beginning can become toxic and corrosive in the long run. According to the Indian Bar Association’s survey on Sexual Harassment at Workplace, 29.9% of women took 12 months and more before reporting the violation to the management. Sixty per cent of women suffered from harassment for 6 months and 11.1% reported that the harassment continued for 6-12 months before reporting it to the authorities.
Now, imagine the time taken by a woman to recognise the offensive conduct at work. The amount of stress, self-blame, confusion and bullying may take away her peace of mind and productivity. She may think of leaving the job; in extreme cases, change careers completely. These disillusioned thoughts could hamper her economic empowerment and independence. To end this vicious cycle, women must break the silence ‘right in time’ to put a ‘FULL STOP’ to their struggles and sufferings.
The United Nations has created a dossier defining the concept and the types of sexual harassment prevalent in hostile workplaces. Some of them are as follows:
- Unwanted sexual gestures or suggestive signals
- Non-verbal cues include unwelcome body language like staring, scanning the person through ‘elevator eyes’
- Physical advances and inappropriate touching
- Displaying suggestive visuals like pornography and illustrations
- Unwanted pressure for dates, flirting or demanding sexual favours
- Verbal signals may include sexual comments about a person’s anatomy or dress sense, talking about sexual fantasies, intrusive questions about social or sexual life
- Sexist remarks from colleagues/boss/client
As a working woman in India, if you recognise even one of these signs, it amounts to sexual harassment. If you find yourself in such an awkward situation, take charge of things, follow procedure and guidelines and bravely take a stand against this misogyny. Though this is a sad reality, don’t feel victimised, as there are laws and rules that uphold the rights of a working woman in India, which we will explore further.
What to do in case of sexual harassment at work?
Being sure of sexual harassment and acknowledging it is the first step towards raising your voice. Here is the process that can help you to navigate further and prepare you to take a brave stand individually against workplace sexual harassment.
1. Evaluate the situation in your company
Try to find out whether the organisation promotes mockery or harbours a bias against a particular gender. Be observant while working in the office to find out whether you are the only one suffering due to this gender bias or many others are suffering due to gender apathy.
2. Gather peer support at work
Often, the harassers trouble many of their women colleagues or subordinates with varying degrees of sexual overtones. Find out if there are other victims like you by talking to your ex- or current colleagues indirectly. Research the history and past records of the harasser and gather witnesses to strengthen your case. If possible, ask the aggrieved women professionals to email their statements as written proof against the perpetrator
3. Understand your rights under Vishaka guidelines
Right to equality and opportunity is a fundamental right for all the working citizens in India. As a professional woman, you must understand your rights prescribed by the Supreme Court of India under Vishaka Guidelines. According to these, it is the duty of the employer/other responsible persons in the workplaces to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment. Also, the management is equally responsible to bring bias-free and appropriate resolution, settlement or prosecution for any complaint.
4. Confront the harasser
‘No’ is a very powerful word. Instead of ‘suffering in silence’, tell your harasser to back off from degrading behaviours in a no-nonsense approach. This confrontation shifts the power dynamics and brings the control of the situation to you. Don’t open up your cards about filing a complaint, but tell him strictly that his behaviour is unwelcome to you. This step is optional but can be personally empowering and liberating.
5. File formal complaints at the police station and in the office
Filing an FIR is the first legal step taken against the extreme cases of harassment at the workplace. Make a written complaint and try to encapsulate when and how the harassment started and how it is draining you emotionally and affecting your productivity. Besides filing the FIR at a local police station, you can also submit your complaint to an ‘Internal Complaints Committee’ (ICC) within your organisation.
Did you know? Any office with more than 10 employees should have an internal complaints committee according to the laws in India. But many of the private and multinational companies in our country still don’t have the provision to address sexual harassment complaints. In such cases, you can approach your HR head and submit a written complaint against the harasser.
Before filing an FIR against sexual harassment, a woman must educate herself about the relevant rules and laws in the country. We will explore the relevant laws applicable in India that protect and uphold the women’s rights.
The laws for sexual harassment in India
Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 outlines the protection and discrimination-free environment that Indian women must have in professional life. The basic premise of this act is summed up in its Section 3(1), that is, ‘no woman shall be subjected to sexual harassment at any workplace’. The act acknowledges workplace sexual harassment as a gross human rights violation.
But even after 5 years of its implementation, many working women still don’t know about their rights in the professional sphere. As per FICCI’s 2015 research study, ‘Fostering Safe Workplaces’, 36% of Indian companies and 25% of multinational companies had not yet constituted their Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
Even 50% of the companies which constituted ICC according to the sexual harassment law admitted that their ICC members were not legally trained. Ideally, one of the ICC members must be equipped with the law in great detail. Amid all such ambiguities, it is really difficult for women professionals, as well as employers and institutions, to ensure proper implementation of this act. Keeping this in mind, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has created a handbook as a guideline to implement a robust framework in the Indian corporate culture. You can check it here.
Various laws under Indian Penal Code (IPC) also see different types of sexual harassment practices as punishable offences. These sections are mentioned below:
- Section 209: Three months imprisonment or fine/or both if the harasser enacts obscene acts in any public place, or sings obscene songs to the annoyance of others
- Section 354 (A): Rigorous imprisonment on the offence of sexual harassment which may extend to three years if a man
- Initiates any physical contact, advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures
- Demands or requests sexual favours
- Shows pornography against the will of a woman
- Makes sexually coloured remarks
- Section 509: One-year imprisonment or fine/or both if the harasser utters any word or makes any gesture intended to insult the modesty of a woman. (You cannot call her “mast, sexy, babe”.)
- The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act (1987): Minimum sentence of two years if a harasser uses literature, books, illustrations or films containing ‘indecent representation of women’
Tips to cope with sexual harassment at work
Facing sexual harassment and coming out in the open is a challenging yet a brave step. As a survivor, if you are coming out against workplace sexual harassment, here are some important coping tips to help you survive the tough, challenging times ahead.
- Have a strong support system in place: Your family and friends are your biggest support system in the world. Without any expectations or demands, they will always stand by you. Before you initiate any legal action against your harasser, keep them with you all the time. Remember, the legal proceedings, police investigations or ICC meetings might drain your energy and confidence. The company of family and friends who care for you will help you sail through this hardship
- Seek professional help: Sexual harassment erodes your confidence and self-worth. It may instil a doubt in your professional capabilities and increase your stress levels as well. In such troubled times, an aggrieved woman should seek a psychologist or a counsellor’s help to sail through the traumatic times
- Keep 1298 women helpline handy: This number should be a go-to zone if you need immediate expert guidance and don’t know where to go. Many NGOs are associated with this helpline and can support women in all legal, psychiatric and psychological and other kinds of counselling.
India can be a progressive and gender-equal country if we aim to speak for our rights. Standing for our rights and taking necessary steps in time can make workplaces in India safe for the present and future generations.
Whenever anyone approaches Bonobology counsellors regarding workplace sexual harassment, we suggest they learn more about their rights and laws in India and inspire them to speak up. ‘Empowerment’ is the only way to claim power back into your life and prevent any professional and personal life’s complications.
Do you agree with us? Do you feel that if women were aware of the laws, they would be able to speak up and fight for their rights with confidence? Do you think this awareness would make workplaces in India safe for millions of women professionals in India? Share your views with us…