Sexual Harassment at workplace is a grave violation of women’s right to equality, life and personal liberty. It disturbs the dignity and physical wellbeing of women. At macro level, sexual harassment creates hostile work environment and discourages participation of women and thereby severely hampering social and economic empowerment.
The Parliament enacted The Sexual Harassment of Women At Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal) Act, 2013 (hereinafter referred as “Act”) with an object to provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
The Supreme Court defined sexual harassment as any unwelcome, sexually determined physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct. Examples included sexually suggestive remarks about women, demands for sexual favours, and sexually offensive visuals in the workplace. The definition also covered situations where a woman could be disadvantaged in her workplace as a result of threats relating to employment decisions that could negatively affect her working life. Section 2 (n) of the Act defines “sexual harassment” and “Workplace” in broad sense.
Internal Complaints Committee
Chapter III of the Act makes it mandatory for every employer to constitute a Committee in writing called as the “Internal Complaints Committee” at every office of the organisation having more than 10 employees. The Committee shall comprise the Presiding Officer and members nominated by the employer subject to fulfilment of criteria stipulated under Section 4 of the Act.
Procedure to be followed by the Internal Complaints Committee
Any aggrieved woman may file a written complaint of sexual harassment at workplace to the Internal Committee, within a period of three months from the date of incident. The Committee has the power to condone upto further three months. In case of physical or mental incapability of the aggrieved woman, her legal heirs or such other person as described in Rule 6 of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Rules, 2013 (“the Rules”) may make a complaint.
On receipt of the complaint, the committee, before initiating an inquiry, may through conciliation take steps to settle the matter between complainant and the respondent and when a settlement is arrived no further inquiry is conducted. If the conciliation fails or any term of the settlement arrived at has not been complied with by the respondent, the committee shall proceed further with the inquiry.
During the inquiry, the principle of natural justice is followed and both the parties are heard and opportunity is given to make representations against the findings of the committee. For the purpose of making an inquiry, the committee shall have the same powers as are vested in a civil court. The committee must complete the inquiry within a period of 90 days. The committee can give certain interim reliefs to the aggrieved woman during the pendency of the inquiry.
When the allegation against the respondent has been proved the committee shall recommend the employer/ Officer to take action for sexual harassment as misconduct in accordance with provisions of service rules or where no such rules have been made, as prescribed in Rule 9 of the Rules and to pay such compensation to the aggrieved woman as it consider appropriate, in accordance with the provisions of section 15, from the salary of the respondent. The employer Officer shall act upon the recommendations within 60 days.
In case of filing of false or malicious complaint or false evidence the committee may recommend to the employer to take action in accordance with the provisions of service rules or where no such service rules exist, in such manner as prescribed in Rule 10 of the Rules.
Key Points from the Act
The Act expressly prohibits disclosure / publication of identity of the aggrieved woman, respondent, witnesses, contents of the complaint, inquiry proceedings or recommendations of the committee. Any violation of the same is punishable with penalty as per the service rules.
The Act lays down certain duties of the employer and District Officer under Section 19 and 20 respectively such as creating awareness on sexual harassment at workplace, sensitize the employees, assist the complaints committee in conducting the inquiry, act upon recommendations of the committee, monitor timely submissions of reports of the committee etc.
Even though the Act is in force since 2013, many employees and employers still lack awareness of the law. Extensive awareness programmes sensitizing both the employees and the employer about the menace of sexual harassment and its statutory implications is the need of the hour.