Vishakha judgment on sexual harassment at workplace

Vishakha judgment on sexual harassment at workplace

sexual-harrasmentIANS explains the salient points of the Vishakha judgment, that has been often quoted in the last few days, in the context of the latest sexual harassment case to hit the headlines:

Question: What is the Vishakha judgment?

Answer: The Vishakha judgment by the Supreme Court laid down the guidelines for employers for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment/assault at the workplace, and stipulated formation of committees to dispose of complaints from victims.

Question: What are the salient points of the judgment?

Answer: The court said sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as physical contact, demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

The judgment recognised sexual harassment as a violation of fundamental rights of women to equality, non-discrimination, the practice of occupation, trade, business or profession of one’s choice, and to life and liberty. The court noted that the fundamental right to carry on any occupation, trade or profession depends on the availability of a “safe” working environment.

It stipulated that all organisations would form a complaints committee to look into any such allegation. It would be headed by a woman employee and not less than half of its members would be women. All complaints of sexual harassment by any woman employee would be directed to this committee.

The committee would advise the victim on further course of action and recommend to the management the course of action against the person accused of harassment.

Question: When did the judgment come?

Answer: The Supreme Court laid down the Vishakha guildelines in 1997 following the rape of a social worker in Rajasthan.

After an extremely humiliating legal battle in the Rajasthan High Court, the rape survivor did not get justice. This enraged a women’s rights group called Vishakha that filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court.

Question: What was the recourse available to women before Vishakha judgment?

Answer: Before 1997, women experiencing sexual harassment at workplace had to lodge a complaint under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code that deals with the ‘criminal assault of women to outrage women’s modesty’, and Section 509 that punishes an individual or individuals for using a ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman’.

These sections left the interpretation of ‘outraging women’s modesty’ to the discretion of the police officer.

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