Sexual harassment: Plethora of agony of working women( Second Edition)

Kaustav Ghosh

“All nations have attained greatness by paying respect to woman. That country and that nation which do not respect women have never become great, nor will ever be in future.”

                                                                                                                     -Swami Vivekananda2

Agony can be removed:- Constitution of India ensures ‘equality of status and opportunity’.  A safe workplace is therefore a woman’s legal right. Indeed, the Constitutional doctrine of equality and personal liberty is contained in Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. These articles ensure a person’s right to equal protection under the law, to live a life free from discrimination on any ground and to protection of life and personal liberty3.  Sexual harassment constitutes a gross violation of women’s right to equality and dignity. It has its roots in patriarchy and its attendant perception that men are superior to women and that some forms of violence against women are acceptable. One of these is workplace sexual harassment, which views various forms of such harassment, as harmless and trivial. Across the globe today, workplace sexual harassment is increasingly understood as a violation of women’s rights and a form of violence against women. Indeed, the social construct of male privileges in society continues to be used to justify violence against women in the private and public sphere. In essence, sexual harassment is a mirror reflecting male power over women that sustains patriarchal relations. In a society where violence against women, both subtle and direct, is borne out of the patriarchal values, women are forced to conform to traditional gender roles. These patriarchal values and attitudes of both women and men pose the greatest challenge in resolution and prevention of sexual harassment4.

In 2013 we saw several legislations came in India for safeguarding all the women against sexual harassment. Criminal Law amendment Act, 2013 amends the then existing provision of Section 354A which deals with sexual harassment. “Clause (v) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature” has been removed. Punishment for offence under clause (i) and (ii) has been reduced from five years of imprisonment to three years. The offence is no longer gender-neutral. According to this new amendments ‘sexual harassment’ consists of physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; or a demand or request for sexual favours; or forcibly showing pornographies; or making sexually coloured remark; or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.5  Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was introduced:-

“ provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. WHEREAS sexual harassment results in violation of the fundamental rights of a woman to equality under articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India and her right to life and to live with dignity under article 21 of the Constitution and right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business which includes a right to a safe environment free from sexual harassment;”6 According to the Press Information Bureau of the Government of India:- “The Act will ensure that women are protected against sexual harassment at all the work places, be it in public or private. This will contribute to realization of their right to gender equality, life and liberty and equality in working conditions everywhere. The sense of security at the workplace will improve women’s participation in work, resulting in their economic empowerment and inclusive growth.”7

Previously we had Vishakha guidelines were a set of procedural guidelines for use in India in cases of sexual harassment. They were promulgated by the Supreme Court of India in 1997. Before 1997, a person facing sexual harassment at workplace had to lodge a complaint under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 that deals with the ‘criminal assault of women to outrage women’s modesty’, and Section 509 that punishes an individual/individuals for using a ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman.[8]

During the 1990s, Rajasthan state government employee Bhanwari Devi who tried to prevent child marriage as part of her duties as a worker of the Women Development Programme was raped by the landlords of the gujjar community. The feudal patriarchs who were enraged by her (in their words: “a lowly woman from a poor and potter community”) ‘guts’ decided to teach her a lesson and raped her repeatedly. This enraged a women’s rights group called Vishaka that filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India.[9]

This case brought to the attention of the Supreme Court of India, “the absence of domestic law occupying the field, to formulate effective measures to check the evil of sexual harassment of working women at all work places.” In 1992 The National Commission for Women (NCW), a statutory body of the Government of India was constituted which is generally concerned with advising the government on all policy matters affecting women.

The Sexual Harassment Act requires an employer to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at each office or branch having more than 10 employees of any gender. The government is in turn required to set up a Local Complaints Committees (LCC) at the district level to investigate complaints regarding sexual harassment from establishments where the ICC has not been constituted on account of the establishment having less than 10 employees or if the complaint is against the employer.10 The Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 also sets out the constitution of the committees, process to be followed for making a complaint and inquiring into the complaint in a time bound manner.The Sexual Harassment Act empowers the ICC and the LCC to recommend to the employer, at the request of the aggrieved employee, interim measures such as (i) transfer of the aggrieved woman or the respondent to any other workplace; or (ii) granting leave to the aggrieved woman up to a period of three months in addition to her regular statutory/ contractual leave entitlement.11

In addition to ensuring compliance with the other provisions stipulated, the Sexual Harassment Act casts certain obligations upon the employer to, inter-alia,

  • provide a safe working environment
  • display conspicuously at the workplace, the penal consequences of indulging in acts that may constitute sexual harassment and the composition of the Internal Complaints Committee
  • organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals for sensitizing employees on the issues and implications of workplace sexual harassment and organizing orientation programmes for members of the Internal Complaints Committee
  • Treat sexual harassment as a misconduct under the service rules and initiate action for misconduct.
  • The employer is also required to monitor the timely submission of reports by the ICC.12

If an employer fails to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee or does not comply with any provisions contained therein, the Sexual Harassment Act prescribes a monetary penalty of up to INR 50,000 (approx. US$1,000)[13]. A repetition of the same offence could result in the punishment being doubled and / or de-registration of the entity or revocation of any statutory business licenses.

International law on ensuring woman safety:- Articles 1, 2 and 7 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 speak about equality in dignity, rights and freedoms, and equal protection of men and women against any discrimination. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 enjoins all states to guarantee the rights enunciated in it without discrimination of any kind. States must ensure equality between women and men for the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights established in the Covenant. The right to fair conditions of work is enshrined in Article 7. [14]

United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979 States commit themselves to (1) incorporate the equality of men and women in their legal system and abolishing all discriminatory laws; (2) establishing tribunals and other public institutions to ensure effective protection of women against discrimination; and (3) ensuring elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.[15]

(This paper was presented at the 2nd International Virtual Conference on “Women’s World: Epitome of Victimisation and Emancipation” organized by Vidhi Aagaz, International Journal of Law Management and Humanities ,International Journal of Legal Science and Innovation and Centre for Constitutional Research and Development on August, 2019.)


2)Women Empowerment. India: Prowess Publishing, 2021 (This quote was added later)

3)HANDBOOK on Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 retrieved from

4)Tandon, Amish. Law of Sexual Harassment at Workplace: Practice & Procedure. India: Niyogi Books, 2017.

5)Garg, S. K.. The New Law on Protection of Women: The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2013, Punishment in Rape Cases as Per the Indian Penal Code. India: Xcess Infostore Pvt. Limited, 2017.

6) ibid

 7)Press Information Bureau, Government of India (4 November 2010). Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010. Retrieved 13 September 2018.

8)A brief history of the battle against sexual harassment at the workplace”. Retrieved 7 December 2018.

9)Samhita (2001). The Politics of Silence. Kolkata.

10)FP Staff (23 February 2011). “Sexual harassment and Vishakha guidelines: All you need to know”. Firstpost. Retrieved 21 November 2018.

11)Agarwal, Abhyudaya (31 October 2014). “Is Vishaka Guidelines Compliance enough anymore?”. iPleaders. Retrieved 7 November 2018.

12)Pragya Dhoundiyal (18 September 2014). “Quid pro quo and Hostile environment – sexual harassment”. iPleaders. Retrieved 9 October 2018.

13) “India’s New Labour Law – Prevention Of Sexual Harassment At The Workplace – Employment and HR – India”. Retrieved 21 November 2018.

14)PhD thesis ” Atrocities to Women and Violation of Human Rights with special references to Harassment in Work Places” in 2005, by Dr Madhumita Parida,


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