Sexual assault charges against former Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal, has yet again brought to the fore the need for organisations to abide by regulations/ laws and respond swiftly to the situation. In this case, however, the organisation in question did not even have a committee to probe into such matters as stipulated by the law.
It was in 1997 when the Supreme Court of India laid down formal guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace following the gang rape of a social worker, Bhanwari Devi from Bhateri in Rajasthan. According to reports, despite a long legal battle that ensued, Bhanwari Devi did not get justice and led to women's rights group – Vishakha – filing public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court.
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
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.
Read here: Vishakha guidelines