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Supreme Court of India highlights enforcement lapses in sexual harassment cases

By- Ramesh Vaidyanathan & Sanjana Raman

India’s law on prevention of sexual harassment at workplace, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (the “Act”), aims to create a safe working environment by prohibiting unwelcome acts of sexual harassment. It applies to women in all sectors and requires employers to establish an Internal Committee (“IC”) to address complaints.

The law expects employers to create policies, conduct awareness programs, and take disciplinary action against offenders. The inquiry into a complaint conducted by an IC must be completed within 90 days from the date of receipt of the complaint, and penalties can include warnings, fines, transfer, suspension, or termination. The Act, commonly known as POSH, marks its tenth anniversary in 2023 and is seen as a vital legislation in India addressing sexual harassment at workplace.

In a recent landmark judgment[1], the Supreme Court of India underscored serious deficiencies in the enforcement of the Act. The court cited a survey by a national daily newspaper that revealed that 16 out of 30 national sports federations have not bothered to establish ICs. Even where ICs were in place, they often lacked the minimum number of members or the required external representation. The court felt that this situation reflected poorly on all entities, including state functionaries, public authorities, private organizations that are duty-bound to implement the law.

The Court emphasized the serious consequences of sexual harassment on victims, including damage to their self-esteem, emotional well-being, and physical health. It noted that many women hesitate to report misconduct and often end up leaving their jobs. The reasons for this reluctance on the part of the victims include uncertainty about whom to approach for redressal, lack of confidence in the process/outcome as also fear of reprisal.

The court stressed the need to educate complainants about their rights under the Act. These cover, understanding the complaint registration process, the functioning of ICs, potential consequences for delinquent employees, the outcome of false or malicious complaints, and available remedies for dissatisfied complainants.

The Court issued several directives including the following:

  1. Verification of the establishment of the IC/local committees by all ministries, departments, government organizations, etc.

  2. Requiring organizations to provide on their websites information on such committees including contact details, complaint procedures, and relevant policies, as also regularly update the information.

  3. Conducting similar verification exercises for professional bodies, universities, colleges, training centres, hospitals, and nursing homes.

  4. Providing training to the committee members on their responsibilities and inquiry procedures for harassment complaints.

  5. Organizing orientation programs, workshops, seminars, and awareness programs to educate committee members, women employees, and women’s groups about the law.

This judgment highlighted the importance of conducting fair and unbiased inquiries in cases of sexual harassment. It also called for robust implementation of the law to create safe and secure workplaces for women.

[1] Civil Appeal No. 2482 of 2014


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