It was in 1997 that the Supreme Court of India acknowledged sexual harassment at the workplace as a human rights violation, while delivering the judgment in Vishaka and others v/s State of Rajasthan. The Indian Constitution guarantees the Fundamental Right of equality to women, under Article 14 & 15 of the Constitution. Furthermore, all women are guaranteed the right to live and live with dignity, under Article 21 of the Constitution.
However, while the laws are fairly clear in giving the rights to women, in practice they are often denied their basic rights, both within the confines of their family, as also, in society. This problem is further extended to the workplace, be it an office or a factory or manual labour, women have to still fight for their basic rights. In many cases, especially in semi-rural and rural areas, women are not even aware of their rights, as guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
India is a mix of societies that vary in cultural and social practices and beliefs. What may be acceptable to one community may not be acceptable to the other. Over time, women have been largely restricted to domestic activity within the confines of their homes, therefore, it has taken several years for the mindset to change and allow women to go out and work for a living. Indian men are still in the process of coming around to accepting this changing role and very often this itself is causing domestic conflicts.
Besides trying to fight this mindset with the men at home, the woman has to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace. This is a reality and women across India, at all levels of society, have to face this at some point in their lives or career. The Sexual Harassment Act protects women from harassment at the workplace but that has not proved to be a deterrent in any manner.
Sexual harassment cases in Haryana
The most prominent case of sexual harassment reported was the ex-Haryana Police IGP, SPS Rathore's molestation case of 14 year old Ruchika Girhotra. The act of molestation and subsequent harassment to her and her family, led to a young girl losing her life. The case that followed showed the loop holes in law that are exploited by those in power.
Another case reported is the case of Yudhvir Singh Khyalia, a senior rank officer in the Haryana administration who is involved with a sexual harassment case involving a lady pharmacist.
The ex- minister Gopal Kanda's sexual harassment and abetment to suicide case involving the ex-airhostess and employee, Geetika Sharma, has been extensively reported in the media.
In 2010, there was a case of a female student studying for her PhD. In Maharishi Dayanand University, who was allegedly molested by her head of the department.
In all these cases, while the laws laid down are quite stringent, they have not been able to curb the menace of sexual harassment of women.
So how can this problem be addressed?
While the laws are all there, the first thing required is a speedy trial and prosecution of the aggressor. Unfortunately, these cases take several years to reach judgment at the trial courts, then the case goes into appeal in the higher courts and then finally the appeal reaches the Supreme Court. After all this time, the impact of the final prosecution is lost on the people and society. While justice is delivered, the society does not seem to be very affected.
Therefore, there is a larger role to be played by society in educating and sensitising people on the morality and ethics of sexual harassment and gender respect. The first place to address this has to be from home. The first education on social values and norms is learnt at home. Later, the school and peer group take over. Therefore, we all have a responsibility to teach our children to respect the opposite gender and to adopt an inclusive style, when interacting with the opposite gender.
This has to then be extended to the school environment, where we have to bring back the emphasis on moral education, ethics and values, and include with the regular academic curriculum. Unless this is done on a priority basis, we will not be able to engage the new generation on what should be right or wrong in our social interaction.Therefore, it is our responsibility as a society to create the right and safe environment, so that all women can fearlessly step out and contribute to society in the same way that men do.
It's also very important for women to be aware of their legal rights and to know what action is to be taken if they face harassment. For instance, if the sexual harassment is taking place in office or on duty, a woman must file a written complaint within 30 days to the internal vigilance committee of that organisation. All organisations are now mandated to have one. Once the prima facie inquiry reveals a genuine case, this must be followed by a police complaint by both the organisation, as also, the individual.
In most cases, women are not even aware that their organisation is mandated to have an internal vigilance committee, and the composition of this committee must be prominently displayed within the organisation. In many cases, women keep silent due to fear of social ostracising by the co-workers or society where they live. All women must be taught and told that there is no shame in standing up and fighting for their rights and dignity, and unless they speak up, the aggressor will most likely continue to harass the same woman or the some other. Therefore, one must speak up.
In Haryana, we have a society that is caught between earlier traditions and a new emerging society that is being rapidly exposed to other cultures and social norms. The impact of this contradiction can only be reduced if the youth grow up in a sensitised environment, where they understand the impact of social change.
If we have to build a Nayi Soch in a Naya Haryana, we will have to realign our education curriculum in schools and colleges, to include moral education along with ethics. It's time to stand up and fight against this menace.