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Forms of Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Traditional forms of Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment has traditionally been divided into two well-known forms:

  • Quid pro Quo
  • Hostile work environment

"Quid Pro Quo" literally means "this for that". Applying this to sexual harassment, it means seeking sexual favours or advances in exchange for work benefits such as promises of promotion, higher pay, academic advancements etc. This type of sexual harassment mostly holds a woman to ransom as her refusal to comply with a 'request' can be met with retaliatory action such as dismissal, demotion, memos, tarnished work record and difficult work conditions.

"Hostile work environment" is a less clear yet more pervasive form of sexual harassment. It commonly involves conditions of work or behaviour towards a female worker, which make it unbearable for her to be there. While the worker is never promised or denied anything in this context, unwelcome sexual harassment occurs simply because she is a woman. Understanding Instances of Sexual Harassment A number of surveys revealed that a number of unwelcome actions by fellow colleagues are causing harassment among women workers. Prominent of them are:

  • Derogatory comments of sexual nature or based on gender
  • Presence of sexual visual material or pornographic material such as posters, cartoons, drawings, calendars, pinups, pictures, computer programs of sexual nature
  • Written material that is sexual in nature, such as notes or e - mail containing sexual comments
  • Comments about clothing, personal behavior, or a person‘s body
  • Patting, stroking grabbing or pinching one‘s body
  • Obscene phone calls
  • Telling lies or spreading rumors about a person‘s personal or sex life
  • Rape or attempted rape and so on.

Impact and Consequences

While it was being increasingly found difficult to find any legal remedy against such sexual overtures, nobody could deny the ill effects they cause on overall work atmosphere and productivity of any organization. The menace was causing innumerable incidents of harassment also in the unorganized sectors. Any workplace coming under the grip of this growing evil had cumulative effects on the whole organization; its impact on individual women was multiple and added up to losses for the organization as a whole.

Whenever sexual harassment had become so unpleasant and make a worker‘s life miserable, she would seek redressal under the extant law such as Section 354 (outraging of modesty) or Section 509 (insulting of modesty) of the Indian Penal Code, 1890. She would also seek alternative employment. The employer would on its part, incur significant costs in defending its image and in finding suitable replacements for both the errant and the harassed members of its workforce. Generally, therefore, it had been in the interest of employers that the working environment provides that the workers are treated with dignity.

Looking from the angle of human resources, sexual harassment causes a range of ill effects like:

  • Self - blame and guilt
  • Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Anxiety, fear, decreased interest in work
  • Restlessness, uncertainty about future
  • Physical or emotional withdrawal from friends, family and co-workers and so on.

Promulgation of the Law

Until the mid 1990s the concept of sexual harassment at workplace was not recognized by Indian Courts as such. There were, however, some notable exceptions. In Rupan Deol Bajaj vs. Kanwar Pal Singh Gill (1995) the Court recognized sexual harassment as a crime falling squarely under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, by interpreting―outraging the modesty of a woman to include outraging the dignity of a woman. Later in 1997, in its landmark judgment in Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan and Ors case, Supreme Court for the first time defined sexual harassment at workplace. In yet another important case Apparel Export Council Vs. A. K. Copra case, Supreme Court clarified that physical contact is not an essential ingredient of sexual harassment.

Some relevant provisions

Sections 354 and 509 IPC read as follows:

354 - Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty : Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine.

509 - Word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman. Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, but such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, and also with fine.

In the matter of Vishaka & Others vs State of Rajasthan, Supreme Court defined sexual harassment at workplace and promulgated measures to curb it by strongly advocating a code of conduct in every workplace. In this epic judgment, the Supreme Court also recognized it as a Human Rights issue and pointed out the legal vacuum to address the concern of the sexually harassed women. Sexual harassment was defined as that which includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) as:

  • physical contact and advances
  • a demand or request for sexual favours
  • sexually coloured remarks
  • showing pornography
  • any other unwelcome physical verbal or non - verbal conduct of sexual nature.

Where any of these acts is committed in circumstances where under the victim of such conduct has a reasonable apprehension that in relation to the victim's employment or work whether she is drawing salary, or honorarium or voluntary, whether in government, public or private enterprise such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem. It is discriminatory for instance when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment or work including recruiting or promotion or when it creates a hostile work environment. Adverse consequences might be visited if the victim does not consent to the conduct in question or raises any objection thereto.

Source : Training Module for Two Day Workshop on Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal) Act, 2013



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