Sexual harassment in India: Laws and Policies

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Sexual harassment in India: Laws and Policies
Sexual harassment in India: Laws and Policies

Why a legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace in India?

Sexual harassment at the workplace has been a central concern of the women’s movement in India. In the 1980s women had recourse to two sections of the Indian Penal Code, Section 354 that deals with the ‘criminal assault assault of women to outrage women’s modesty‘, and Section 509 that punishes for using a ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman.’ These sections left the interpretation of ‘outraging women’s modesty’ to the discretion of the police officer.
In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a social worker with the Women’s Development Programme (WDP) of the Rajasthan government, was gang raped by higher-caste men enraged by her efforts to stop child marriage in their family. Bhanwari’s gang rape in Rajasthan was followed by an extremely humiliating battle in the Rajasthan High Court.The acquittal of the accused attracted widespread media attention and became a landmark case for the women’s movement in India.

Bhanwari’s case raised important concerns about the safety of women in the workforce. Women's activists and lawyers have propagated the view that Bhanwari attracted the ire of her rapists solely on the basis of her work. A number of women’s rights groups campaigned for justice for Bhanwari. Vishakha, a women’s rights group in Rajasthan, filed a PIL in the Supreme Court to enforce fundamental rights of working women.

The Vishaka Guidelines, 1997

  • 1997: Supreme Court passed the landmark Vishakha judgement and laid down guidelines, popularly called the Vishaka Guidelines. The judgement of August 1997 provided the basic definitions of sexual harassment at the workplace and mechanisms to deal with it. It is was a significant legal victory for women's rights groups in India.
  • The judgement busted many myths around sexual harassment in the workplace. It defined sexual harassment by its impact on the woman rather than the intent of the perpetrator.
  • The Vishaka guidelines define sexual harassment to include unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as: • Physical contact • A demand or request for sexual favours • Sexually coloured remarks • Showing pornography • Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature, for example, leering, telling dirty jokes, making sexual remarks about a person’s body, etc
  • The Vishakha guidelines categorically state that prohibition, prevention and redress in the case of sexual harassment at the workplace are the obligations of institutions.
  • The guidelines also directed that institutions establish a Complaints Committee, which would look into matters of sexual harassment of women at the workplace.

Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

  • The Act broadens the definitions of sexual harassment. It includes sexually suggestive remarks or innuendos; serious or repeated offensive remarks; inappropriate questions or remarks about a person’s sex life.
  • It includes : Display of sexist or offensive pictures, posters, MMS, SMS, WhatsApp, or emails,
  • Intimidation, threats, blackmail around sexual favours; also, threats, intimidation or retaliation against an employee who speaks up about these
  • Unwelcome social invitations with sexual overtones, commonly seen as flirting
  • Unwelcome sexual advances.
  • The Act mandates the constitution of sexual harassment committee by the employer at each office with more than 10 employees.
  • The 2013 Act broadens the occupational roles of women. It states that a woman “of any age whether employed or not”, who “alleges to have been subjected to any act of sexual harassment”. This covers and protects the rights of all women working or visiting any workplace, in any capacity.
  • The 2013 Act also mandates that the inquiry process be completed within 90 days.
  • There are also consequences for organisations that don’t comply with the Act.


#MeToo spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag used on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It followed soon after the sexual misconduct allegations against the American film producer, Harvey Weinstein. Tarana Burke, an American social activist and community organizer, began using the phrase "Me Too" as early as 2006, and the phrase was later popularized by American actress Alyssa Milano, on Twitter in 2017. Milano encouraged survivors of sexual harassment to tweet about it and "give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem". This was met with success that included but was not limited to high-profile posts from several American celebrities.

In India, media and the entertainment industry have been rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men. Women in media have taken to Twitter to call out male colleagues and acquaintances in the workplace for non consensual behaviour and sexual harassment. While some of those accused have apologised for their behaviour, others have been asked to step down from senior positions; there are also men who have either denied the allegations or have chosen to remain silent.

The trigger for #MeToo in the Indian media is possibly the testimony of Dr Christine Blasey Ford, an American professor and a research psychologist, who accused Brett Kavanaugh, a US Supreme Court judge nominee, of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers. The allegation of sexual assault by Bollywood actor Tanushree Datta against senior actor Nana Patekar, also helped the #MeToo movement gain momentum in the entertainment industry in India.