BQ Learning: Faced With Sexual Harassment? Here’s What You Can Do
BQ Learning is a special show that seeks to demystify financial markets, economic theories, legal processes and political structures. In this series, we discuss citizens’ rights when interacting with the police in various circumstances—from reporting a crime to being investigated. The first part on the relationship between the police and people can be found here; second one on road crimes here; third on serious crimes here; and fourth on cyber offences here.
In this episode, we explain what behaviour amount to sexual harassment and how victims of sexual harassment at workplaces can use legal recourse for relief.
A 2018 survey by Indian National Bar Association revealed that 68 percent victims don’t report fearing consequences at workplaces. And while cases of cyber sexual abuse are rampant, there aren’t any official statistics available to reflect the gravity of the situation. This is the story even though there’s a specific law—Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act—that’s meant to give a voice to sexual harassment victims. Add to that, the specific provisions that make sexual harassment a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act. So, how can women better use these provisions against the perpetrators of sexual harassment? Advocate Vandana Shah shares some insights.
Sexual Harassment At Workplace: Complaint Process
Egregious behaviour like assault and eve-teasing clearly amount to sexual harassment. But off-colour jokes, WhatsApp forwards, personal remarks, describing a woman in anatomical terms, verbal abuse in regular social interactions are all forms of sexual harassment, Shah said. “If a joke makes a woman highly uncomfortable, she’s entitled to go and register a complaint with the Internal Complaints Committee of the organisation.”
Under the law, every organisation with 10 or more employees needs to set up an Internal Complaints Committee. It must be presided over by a senior female employee of the organisation and at least one-half of the nominated members of the committee must be women, including an external member who’s preferably familiar with the law or associated with a non-profit organisation working for the causes of women.
The law entitles a victim to lodge a complaint with the ICC, which is supposed to keep it confidential. This is followed by the issuance of a notice to the respondent within seven working days of receipt of the complaint. The accused gets 10 working days to submit his reply along with the list of witnesses and documents. Thereafter, the committee is supposed to hear the victim, the individual against whom the complaint has been filed and the witnesses on board and present a report.
During the investigation, the ICC can recommend the organisation to provide certain reliefs like transfer of the aggrieved woman or respondent or granting her leave, Shah pointed out. The aggrieved woman and the respondent have the right to cross-examine all witnesses in the form of written questions and responses via the committee only. The working rules of the ICC state that the respondent shall have no right to directly cross-examine the victim or her witnesses.
Sexual Harassment: Criminal Provisions
Physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures, demand or request for sexual favours, showing pornography against the will of a woman, making sexually coloured remarks are all offences under the Indian Penal Code.
A victim of sexual harassment can use the provisions under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act and simultaneously file a first information report with the police. When a victim lodges a police complaint, she’s asked to visit the magistrate’s office where the state registers the complaint. A notice is sent to the accused after that, she said.
“Post this, the trial commences. A sexual harassment trial is conducted like a rape case trial—with a lot of sensitivity. During the trial process, the victim could demand a monetary compensation or mention any other relief that she’s looking for.”
Cyber Sexual Harassment
The Information Technology Act 2000 also provides recourse against social media abuses, advocate Shah said. According to section 66A of the Act, a person sending offensive messages through communication service or a computer device can be imprisoned for a term of up to three years and fine.
Violation of privacy—wherein private images of a person are intentionally captured or published without the person’s consent—carries a punishment of up to three years and a penalty.
Additionally, the POSH Act also highlights recourses available when one is trolled, cyber-stalked, bullied or harassed on social media. The first step for the aggrieved would be to go to the police in such a scenario, Shah said.
Sexual Harassment Victims: Dos And Don’ts
Don’t ever delete a WhatsApp message, warned advocate Shah, adding that exchanges of messenger services are used as legal evidence if the case reaches court. One can confide in a colleague or even write about it on social media platforms. The victim can also send an email to herself after the incident—this will serve as a good memory aid if she decides to report the case after a period of time and can be used as evidence, Shah added.
Watch the full conversation here: