On International women’s day this year, Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives organized a press conference at the Uttar Pradesh Press Club on the importance of sexual harassment free and gender inclusive work spaces. Keeping with the UN campaign theme for this year, “Balance for Better,” AALI highlighted that despite years of struggle for equality in all spheres for women, workspaces continue to remain exclusionary towards them. Within a workforce that is already skewed in favors of men in terms of representation, the creation of unsafe and insecure conditions for women through sexual harassment at workplaces leads to more and more women being either forced out of the workforce or are being prevented from entering them. The related law, Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, was enacted in the year 2013 in order to address the issue of sexual harassment of women in both organized and unorganized sectors. However, in addition to lack of awareness regarding the objectives and provisions of the act, the implementation of the same continues to suffer because of the absence or ineffectiveness of the complaints redressal mechanisms, inattention towards power dynamics, and non-accountability of employers.

AALI shared that the representation of women in the labour force continues to be abysmally low. According to the World Bank, women constituted 28% of the total labour force in India in 1990, which in 2018 stands at a decreased 24.39%. Similarly, according to the Employment- Unemployment Survey conducted by NSSO in 2015-2016, only 21.7% of women are employed in full time occupations as compared to 72.1% of men. In addition, 93% of the women workers are employed in the informal sector. Despite its increasing population, one that is growing fastest in the world, India’s workforce is not representative of women at par with men, and their contribution to the workforce, in the form of informal and emotional labour, remains largely unrecognized.

In an already exclusionary workforce, sexual harassment of women at the workplace becomes a serious obstacle and deterrent in women accessing equal rights. Incidents of the same may occur in all kinds of workspaces that women occupy- in the organized and unorganized, public and private sectors. Some forms of harassment may be overt such as asking for sexual favor’s, passing lewd comments, making unwanted physical contact, or showing pornographic material. Other forms of harassment may not be as visible such as implying or explicitly promising preferential treatment in employment, threatening of detrimental treatment in her employment, threatening about her present or future employment status or interfering with her work, creating an intimidating work environment for her. Shubhangi, Program Coordinator, AALI said, “These forms of sexual harassment were recognized in the Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 that was brought in with the objective of creating safe working environments for women and instituting redressal mechanisms for sexual harassment at workplace in both organized and unorganized sectors. With an expansive definition of “workplace” the act provides for establishment of an International Complaints Committee in every workplace that has more than 10 employees and a Local Complaints Committee at the district level for redressal of complaints at workplaces that have less than 10 employees. The procedure for redressal under the act is civil in nature and is required to be completed within 90 days of any woman employee approaching the ICC or LCC with a complaint.” During the course of the procedure, the complainant may also avail interim relief such as taking a paid leave, getting a transfer to a different department or asking for the respondent’s supervisory role to be changed. Gargi Whorra, Student Representative, ICC, RMLNLU shared, “These ICCs have been created to ensure victims are not silenced. The responsibility of facilitating the survivors’ access to the complaints mechanism and ensuring a safe, gender-sensitive working environment have been both entrusted to the employer and the state for the organized and unorganized sector respectively under the act.”

In AALI’s experience of working with women’s access to justice in Uttar Pradesh for the past 20 years, it has provided socio-legal support to multiple women who have been sexually harassed in the workplace. AALI has also facilitated the setting up of Internal Complaints Committees for multiple organizations and serves as external member on the ICCs of many governmental and non-governmental institutions. AALI shared at the press conference that though the law has been put in place to address the issue of sexual harassment of women at the workplace, the implementation of the same in letter and spirit leaves a lot wanting. Many organizations, including government departments are yet to set up their ICCs. Even in spaces that have ICCs set up, employers do little to spread awareness regarding the same or assist women in accessing it. With lack of clarity regarding the reliefs under the act, women often succumb to the pressures and power dynamics in the workplace fearing consequence for taking such steps. Similarly, for cases that have been reached the ICC, the process for disposal of complaints either has many loopholes or there is mounting pendency of cases due to delay, resulting in revictimization of the complainant further. While the redressal mechanism is inaccessible and ineffective, the employers do not comply to their responsibility regarding measures to be implemented for prevention of harassment and creation of inclusive safe spaces. Maneesha from Action Aid shared, “For women working in the unorganized sector, the level of awareness regarding the law is so low that women cannot even reach the mechanism for redressal and prefer to move away from the workspace and lose employment, only becoming more vulnerable. The provisions of the act must reach women working in all sectors and regular gender audits should happen to ensure compliance.”  In addition, the lack of any consolidated data on the implementation of the act makes estimation regarding the of number of incidents very difficult. According to data presented by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2196 cases of sexual harassment at Workplace were reported on the SHE-Box between January 2015 and July 2018. The largest number of cases, 29%, were reported from Uttar Pradesh. The actual numbers are expected to be much higher.

Gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and right to work with dignity, which is a universally recognised basic human right and is also enshrined in the Constitution of India. In order for these rights of women to be protected and for them to fully realize their potential, safe and conducive work environments are a non-negotiable. In order for the society to be “balanced for better” it is imperative that all attempts are made to increase the representation of women in all spheres of private and public life and creating conditions for their equal participation is the key. AALI shared that for this purpose to be fulfilled, awareness regarding the provisions of the Sexual Harassment of Women (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 must be ensured and the act should implemented through a gender-sensitive, rights based approach. This requires strict accountability and commitment on behalf of employers and the state.

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