The Supreme Court has defined sexual harassment in its order as any unwelcome, sexually determined physical, verbal, or non-verbal act against a women. For example, a sexual remark about a colleague, asking for sexual favours, showing pornography or conducting offensive acts at the workspace. All of this can affect the personal as well as professional life of female workers.

It is vital to ensure that the PoSH Act 2013 is actually able to prevents the sexual harassment at the workplace. This demands widespread awareness amongst the employer, employees, and other staff working within the company. Moreover, women employees or workers who could be facing harassment might not know of the very fact that there’s something which can be done about it. There are some highly educated fools who want to guard the dignity of their company and believe that the matters have to be solved between the two parties involved. But this should not be the case as the victim can always take some action themselves.

Urgent steps must be taken to teach people about what harassment actually is? and what impact does it have on the psychological state of the victim? The employer itself is responsible to establish an ICC for the upkeep of a secure environment in the workspace. The members of ICC must be vigilant enough to ensure that the awareness programs organised regarding PoSH Act 2013 from time to time.

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What Are Vishakha Guidelines?

The Supreme Court, drew upon the world human rights law instrument and the Convention on the Elimination of All sorts of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to pass a certain guidelines that are now popularly referred as Vishaka Guidelines.

The Court said that such incidents ( Vishakha Case) of sexual harassment lead to a violation of the elemental rights envisioned in ‘Gender Equality’ and the ’Right of Life and Liberty’. It is a complete violation of the rights given under Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution. Thus, the Court issued a writ of mandamus and gave the following directions for prevention from such acts:

  • It will be the duty of the employer and other responsible people in workplaces or other such institutions to stop harassment and to devise the resolution and settlement mechanism for the same.
  • The court defined what constitutes harassment. For this purpose, it guided that sexual harassment includes any unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether direct or implicated) including:

a) unwanted physical contact and advances;

b) asking or requesting sexual favours;

c) making sexually coloured remarks;

d) showing pornography or such graphic material;

e) any other unwelcome verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Preventive Steps by the Court: All employers must take appropriate actions to stop sexual harassment at workplace. Without any bias to this obligation, they ought to take the subsequent steps:

(a) Express prohibition of sexual harassment ss defined above and the regulatory behaviour should be notified, published, and circulated in appropriate ways.

(b) Private employers should be asked to incorporate the aforesaid prohibitions within the standing orders under the Economic Employment (Standing Orders) Act,

(C) The Rules/Regulations of state and Public Sector bodies related to conduct and discipline must include rules/regulations prohibiting harassment and define appropriate penalties under such rules against the offender.

(d) Appropriate work conditions should be maintained with respect to labor, leisure, health, and hygiene to further ensure that there’s no hostile environment for women at workplaces.

Criminal Proceedings: When such conduct amounts to some selected offences under the Indian penal code or under any other law, the employer must initiate appropriate action as per the law. The employer must file or assist the aggrieved female in filing the complaint with the respective authority. It should make sure that victims and witnesses aren’t threatened or discriminated against while handling complaints of acts of sexual harassment. The victims of harassment must have the choice to ask for the transfer of the perpetrator or their own.

Disciplinary Action: Whenever such conduct is proved and amounts to misconduct, the employer must take action defined by the relevant service rules. Appropriate disciplinary action should be initiated by the employer in as per the rules.

Complaint Mechanism: Whether or not such conduct constitutes an offence under law or under the service rules, an appropriate complaint mechanism must be maintained within the employer’s organization for effective redressal of any complaint. Such a complaint mechanism should incorporate the time-bound resolution of complaints.

Complaints Committee: The complaint mechanism should be capable of providing resolution to the complaint through Complaints Committee. It should consist of members with prior knowledge of PoSH act and the ability to address cases of sexul harassment.

  • As per the PoSH Act, the Complaints Committee should be headed by a lady. Also, more than half its members must be a females. Further, to stop the likelihood of any influence from senior levels, such a Complaints Committee should involve a 3rd party external member from either NGO or any other body who are proficient in redressal of harassment complaint.
  • The Complaints Committee must come up with an annual report every year and submit it to the govt department concerned with the complaints and actions taken by them. The employers and people responsible will report on the compliance with the aforesaid guidelines. This will include report on working of the Complaints Committee to the govt department.

Workers’ Initiative: Employees should be allowed to raise problems related to harassment at workers’ meetings and in other appropriate forum. It should be affirmatively discussed in Employer-Employee meetings of the organisation.

Awareness Programs: Awareness of the rights given by PoSH law to female employees should be created especially by prominently notifying the rules.

  • The Central/State governments are requested to come up with  suitable measures including legislations to make sure that the rules laid down by the PoSH Act are obeyed by all the employers in the private Sector.
  • Wherever harassment occurs as a result of an act or omission by any third party/outsider, the employer will have to take all steps necessary to help the affected person in terms of support through preventive action.

Impacts of harassment at the Workplace

Sexual harassment leads to professional also as a private loss. Professional loss encompasses decreased performance and increased absenteeism which leads to loss of pay. Other impacts include withdrawal of interest in work, separation, feeling of being objectified, missing out on promotional opportunities, being ostracized,  and having to look for a new company or place to work. This ultimately leads to unnecessary career fluctuation.

Personal loss due to harassment involves anxiety, mental issues, panic attacks, stress, and headaches. These may lead to victims taking extreme steps such as consuming sleeping pills or attempting suicide. The victims sometimes have to switch to anti-depressants to avoid loss of motivation, feeling powerless, losing self confidence, and inability to trust people. These people may end in isolation and withdraw from social gatherings.

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June 2021