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Sexual harassment and Vishakha guidelines: All you need to know

The petition, filed by the women’s right group Vishaka and four other women’s organisations in Rajasthan against the State of Rajasthan and the Union of India, resulted in what are popularly known as the Vishaka Guidelines.  

What constitutes sexual harassment?

The Vishakha guidelines define sexual harassment including unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:
a) Physical contact and advances;
b) A demand or request for sexual favours;
c) Sexually coloured remarks;
d) Showing pornography;
e) Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature

The Guidelines

Vishakha guidelines, as laid down by the Supreme Court put the onus of a safe working environment on the employer.
The guidelines say that: “It shall be the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts, of sexual harassment by taking all steps required.”
The guidelines also lay down a grievance redressal mechanism that mandates all companies, whether operating in the public or private sector, to set up Complaints Committee within the organisation to look into such offences. According to Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Choudhary, their organisation (despite championing women causes) didn’t have such a committee.

Whether or not such conduct constitutes an offence under law or a breach of the service rules, an appropriate complaint mechanism should be created in the employer’s organisation for redress of the complaint made by the victim. Such complaint mechanism should ensure time bound treatment of complaints,”  the Supreme Court guidelines say.

The Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its member should be women. Further, to prevent the possibility of any undue pressure or influence from senior levels, such Complaints Committee should involve a third party, either NGO or other body who is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.

Some general points about the judgement:

legal freedom Below are some of the general points of the Vishakha judgment:
Gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and the right to work with dignity as per our constitution.
Extra hazard for a working woman compared her male colleague is clear violation of the fundamental rights of ‘Gender Equality’ & Right to Life and Liberty.
Safe working environment is fundamental right of a working woman.
In no way should working women be discriminated at the workplace against male employees. (If a woman is, then it must be documented in company policies, for example limitation of women in police and armed forces.)
Working with full dignity is the fundamental right of working women.
The right to work as an inalienable right of all working women.
The Vishakha judgment had recommended a Complaints Committee at all workplaces, headed by a woman employee, with not less than half of its members being women. All complaints of sexual harassment by any woman employee would be directed to this committee. This is significant because an immediate supervisor may also be the perpetrator. The committee advises the victim on further course of action and recommends to the management the course of action against the man accused of harassment.

How does it define sexual harassment at the workplace?

Here is how the Vishakha judgment defines sexual harassment at the workplace.
Anything at work that can place the working woman at disadvantage compared to other male employees in her official career just because she is a woman – can be termed as sexual harassment.
Unwelcome sexually determined behaviour & demands from males employees at workplace, such as: any physical contacts and advances, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography, passing lewd comments or gestures, sexual demands by any means, any rumors/talk at workplace with sexually colored remarks about a working woman, or spreading rumours about a woman’s sexual relationship with anybody.

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