Develop atmosphere of safety for women employees

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Women, who constitute more than half of the population, contribute more than half of the responsibilities towards their families. They are, in fact, a significant part of the society’s development and progress but increasing violence against them is a serious impediment to their development. 

They have to face this systematic discrimination against them at every stage of life. This global epidemic cutting across all geographical boundaries knows no barrier of age, socio-economic, religion, gender or education. 

One of the major forms of harassment against women is sexual harassment at the work place.  Due to sexual harassment at place of work, many women are discouraged from seeking employment.  This may be one of the reasons for low female labour force participation ratio (FLRP) in India. 

Harassment at work place could take different forms – verbal, non-verbal, physical and sexual.  In addition to sexual harassment there are many other forms of violations including bullying, involuntary increase in working hours and psychological abuse.

Sometimes, women employees are subjected to cyber bullying in the form of sending obscene messages, trolling, texting etc. It has negative impact on women employees by way of depression, stress and health issues. Extreme humiliation may sometimes result in severe trauma and suicide.

Sexual harassment at workplace is the most glaring example of human rights violation, gender inequality and injustice.  Each incident of sexual harassment at the workplace also results in the violation of fundamental rights under the Constitution, namely, the right to gender equality and the right to life and liberty. 

The Supreme Court in Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan and Others (JT 1997 (7) SC 384) observed that “Gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and right to work with dignity, which is a universally recognised basic human right. 

The common minimum requirement of this right has received global acceptance.  The international conventions and norms are, therefore, a great significance in the formulation of the guidelines to achieve this purpose”. 

In the same case, the Supreme Court issued guidelines known as ‘Vishaka Guidelines’ to be followed by all employers to ensure safety of women at work place.  These guidelines become the basis for enactment of Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013.

This act provides 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. 

According to the Act, among other things, every employer needs to:

• Provide a safe working environment at the workplace which shall include safety from the persons coming into contact at the workplace;

• Establish and maintain an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) that addresses sexual harassment complaints.

• Hold workshops and awareness-raising programmes in the workplace that inform all workers of the workplace mechanism available to prevent sexual harassment.

• Provide assistance to the women if she so chooses to file a complaint in relation to the offence under the Indian Penal Code or any other law for the time being in force;

•  Cause to initiate action, under the Indian Penal Code or any other law for the time being in force, against the perpetrator, or if the aggrieved women so desires, where the perpetrator is not an employee, in the workplace at which the incident of sexual harassment took place;

• Treat sexual harassment as a misconduct under the service rules and initiate action for such misconduct;

Though the Act provides for a comprehensive mechanism to protect women from sexual or other forms of harassment at workplace, many at times women employees do not come forward to give complaints.  Many women may not report their experiences of sexual harassment due to fear of targeted reprisals by employers or colleagues. Certain psychological factors like feeling of shame also impede reporting of such harassment.

There is a need to create awareness among employers and employees in business, industries and other organisations to develop an atmosphere of safety for women employees. 

Safety for women employees at work place leads to significant economic benefits for employers in the form of increased productivity, decreased rate of attrition and absenteeism, reduced legal cost and increased self confidence among all employees especially women employees. 

Code of conduct

In order to achieve the above objectives, the following measures need to be undertaken:

• All women employees at the time of induction should be made aware of their rights, facilities and actions that they can initiate regarding sexual harassment.
• Developing a Code of Conduct which clearly defines behavioural norms for all employees, especially in relation to behaviour with female employees. 
• Women employees to be assured of speedy redressal, confidentiality of their complaints and protection from reprisal.
• Awareness of the company policy on sexual harassment, on gender discrimination or gender biased approach and the complaint process.
• Training of supervisors and other staff on how to respond to complaints of sexual harassment / gender discrimination.

• Training on self defence should be imparted to women employees to protect themselves from violence or harassment.

• Separate and secure toilets for women close to their work station.

• Provision of company transport for women working in night shifts both to and from the workplace. 

Some organisations have developed good mechanism for enhancing safety for women employees.  The Gender Sensitisation and People Friendly Police (GSPP) project initiated by the Karnataka State Police in collaboration with UNICEF aims at creating a police force that is sensitive and responsive to the needs of vulnerable women. 

Similarly, professional organisations like FICCI and NASSCOM have developed Employer’s Guide and Toolkits for combating harassment and ensuring safety of women at work place. 

Apart from law enforcement agencies and organisations, NGOs also have a greater role to play in creating awareness and educating private organisations to develop safety mechanism in line with legal requirements to ensure gender equality in all work place.

(The writer is Additional Director General of Police, Crime and Technical Services, Karnataka)

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