Underscoring the need to define the boundaries of acceptable behaviour at the workplace, the National Commission for Women (NCW) Saturday decided to look at a separate law or policy that would address all kinds of gender-based discrimination at the workplace beyond sexual harassment.
The decision was taken following a day-long consultative meeting to review the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, at the NCW’s office in New Delhi in the wake of the #MeToo movement that has swept the country since October. Justice (retired) Sujata V Manohar, who was part of the three-judge Bench that laid down the landmark Vishakha guidelines in 1997 to address sexual harassment at the workplace, co-chaired the consultations with NCW chairperson Rekha Sharma.
Justice Manohar said: “The current definition (as per Section 2(n) of the Act) is not adequate to cover all kinds of harassment based on sex. We need a law to address gender-based discrimination in its entirety. After all, the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex.”
She said that such a comprehensive law should cover “sex-based discrimination that is not sexual in nature” adding that such discrimination could include needless derogatory remarks in reports on women employees, or picking faults with her work without any basis, or further victimising her if she complains about her superior’s conduct.
Chairperson Sharma said that the NCW will hold a series of regional and sectorial consultations through the state women’s commissions to look at “a law or gender-policy separate from the issue of sexual harassment”.
“As part of the sectorial consultations, we will conduct sample surveys in corporate offices, the unorganised sector, and various kinds of industries to know about the kinds of discrimination women face. It may be a bad posting or not being given proper work or mental harassment from the boss only because the employee is a woman. These are not covered under the existing Act but we frequently get such complaints. This is why we need a separate policy or law to address gender-based discrimination in all its forms,” she said.
Presently, there is no central data on the constitution of the internal complaints committee (ICC) in the organised sector and local complaints committee (LCC) at the district level for the unorganised sector. The NCW has written to all states asking them to submit the data on the status.
The consultation, which was attended by various legal and gender experts including Justice (retired) G Rohini, advocate Flavia Agnes, Dr Pam Rajput, also discussed ways to make the existing POSH Act stronger. On the issue of acting against past cases that are coming forward now, Justice Manohar said, “This law didn’t think of the #MeToo movement at all. What is to be seen is whether this remains a social movement or whether we can convert it to a legal movement.”
Justice Manohar also detailed ways to address issues that have come to the fore post the #MeToo movement. For instance, the failure of internal mechanisms to deal with complaints against the head of the organisation or where the complainant and the accused belong to different organisations or in the case of an old complaint could be addressed by also having an ICC at the level of the entire industry such as film or media.
She has also suggested that as in the case of rape, more stringent punishment needs to be provided where the abuse is by a person in a position of authority as also when the sexual harassment is accompanied by physical and mental cruelty.