“Disrespect towards women is anything that makes a woman feel uncomfortable, unsafe, put down, or treated unfairly because she’s a woman. It’s pervasive. It’s targeted. And it often involves sexist and sexually harassing behaviours, including making sexist jokes and comments.” (definition taken from online sources)

In India, the POSH Act, a legislative act by the Supreme Court was put into place in 2013. In India, before 1997 there were no formal guidelines to deal with incidents involving sexual harassment at workplaces. They were left to be dealt at the discretion of employers. Further women had to lodge a complaint under sections 354 and 509 of the Indian Penal Code that dealt with criminal assault against women and insult to the modesty of women whether in verbal or physical form. Again the definition or interpretation of the same would be left to the judgement of the concerned police officer in charge.

What prompted then, the Supreme Court to finally make this landmark decision?

In 1997, Bhanwari Devi, a state government employed social worker of Rajasthan, was brutally gang raped repeatedly by the feudal patriarchs of the gujjar community who wanted to teach her a lesson for stopping a child marriage. Bhanwari Devi, the victim did not get justice from Rajasthan High Court and the rapists were left scot-free.

This inspired several women’s groups and non-governmental organizations to take action and file a petition (PIL – Public Interest Litigation) in the Supreme Court in 1997 under the collective platform of Vishaka and Ors. v State of Rajasthan and the Central Government of India to enforce the fundamental rights of working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.

As a result, “Vishaka Guidelines” were stipulated by the Supreme Court of India in 1997 laying down guidelines to be followed by establishments in dealing with complaints about sexual harassment. The court stated that these guidelines were to be implemented until legislation is passed to deal with the issue.

The court decided that the consideration of “International Conventions and norms are significant for the purpose of interpretation of the guarantee of gender equality, right to work with human dignity in Articles 14, 15 19(1)(g) and 21 of the Constitution and the safeguards against sexual harassment implicit therein.”

The court elaborated the definition of sexual harassment as “including such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) like physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, or any other unwelcome physical verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature” and need not involved only physical contact.

The court further recognized that it involved any action that creates a hostile work environment be it by virtue of cracking lewd jokes, verbal abuse, circulating lewd rumours etc., all count as sexual harassment. That further it may not consist of a single act but a pattern of behaviour comprising many such acts.

Noting that in many cases, the psychological stigma of reporting the conduct of a co-worker might require a great deal of courage on the part of the victim and therefore may get delayed or not reported at all, the guidelines suggested a compliance mechanism to ensure time-bound treatment of complaints.

But these were only guidelines. The Supreme Court finally enacted the law in 2013, under the POSH Act, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. The POSH Act defined the scope of the act, rules and action plans to help female employees who have faced sexual harassment. The POSH Act holds the employer responsible for ensuring the safety of all employees and further to provide a safe working environment for all women employees.

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