At a time when the #MeToo movement has forced the government to confront the inadequacy of laws against sexual harassment, the National Commission for Women (NCW), the apex national body with the mandate of redressing such issues, is functioning without a single member.
With the last of its members, Alok Rawat finishing his term on October 19, all five member positions in NCW are currently vacant. The only person holding office at the moment is its Chairperson Rekha Sharma. No new appointments have been made since the expiry of the three-year term of any of the previous members.
Of the five members, two positions are reserved for a female candidate representing Schedule Castes (SC) and Schedules Tribes (ST) so as to ensure that the Commission has enough representation from the most marginalised communities to handle complaints from them. However, after the expiry of the term of the former ST member Laldingliani Sailo in September 2016, the position has remained unfilled. The post of the SC member has been vacant for even longer. The fourth member Sushma Sahu’s term got over in August, while the fifth member Rekha Sharma took over as the NCW chairperson once her term as member got over in the same month. Alok Rawat, who was appointed by the present government, was the first-ever male appointee to the women’s commission.
Besides handling regular cases of domestic violence and other grievances, with the outpouring of sexual harassment complaints over the last month amid the #MeToo movement, the NCW had recently announced a dedicated email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) to handle such cases. This month it is also scheduled to hold consultations with legal experts and civil society stakeholders on possible legislative amendments to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
When contacted, a senior official of the Women and Child Development (WCD) Ministry said that “the proposal is under process and the posts will be filled up shortly.” When asked about the vacancies, NCW Chairperson Rekha Sharma said, “Yes, there is an increase in workload especially since all five positions are vacant but we are handling it somehow. The issue of appointments is handled by the PMO and the WCD ministry. We were recently told that the selection process for all five members is almost complete.”
Ministry officials said that in addition to the pending NCW appointments since 2015, the crucial National Commission for Women draft Bill has been pending with the PMO since April 2015 when the Arun Jaitley-led Group of Ministers approved the draft Bill to strengthen the Commission. The Bill, if passed, would give the Commission the powers of a civil court, allowing it to impose fines on offenders, demand documents, or ask a magistrate to issue arrest warrants if anyone defies its orders. The GoM had recommended doing away with the existing system of making political appointments to the NCW. The Bill is yet to be tabled before Parliament.