Complainant in the dock
The sexual harassment law was passed, but lack of debate has left flaws
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2012, was passed by the Lok Sabha earlier this week. In the din over coal allocations, this was done without any discussion. It is a shame that we women were denied the opportunity to hear what our elected leaders had to say about the bill. The purpose of any law that proposes to provide a grievance redress mechanism for the harassed woman at the workplace is to recognise the fundamental rights of working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, and to prevent such harassment.
Section 14 of the bill calls for action against the complainant in case the "internal committee or the local committee, as the case may be, arrives at a conclusion that the allegation against the respondent is malicious or the aggrieved woman or any other person making the complaint has made the complaint knowing it to be false." This section is likely to have a chilling effect on women wanting to complain about sexual harassment, since she might fear that the complaint will not be proved. It must be remembered that popular thinking often collapses complaints that are "not proved" with complaints that are allegedly "false". Yet the two are not the same.
Often, the only witness is a colleague at the workplace. He or she will be reluctant, for obvious reasons, to depose against a colleague. As a result, the internal complaints committee could find the complaint "not proved" for want of evidence. We need a clause to the effect that the sole testimony of the woman, if otherwise found credible, will suffice to prove the case. Otherwise, there is a chance that the complaint will not be established. From "not proved" to "false and malicious" will be a short journey, causing untold misery to a person who made the complaint seeking justice. Moreover, it is surely not the job of the internal complaints committee to decide or prove that a complaint is false or malicious? Such a provision does not exist in any other law. It seems to be based on a presumption that all women lie when they say that a sexual advance is unwelcome. The argument advanced for the provision is that it will present "misuse" of the law. Yet all laws can be misused — judges exist to take care of that issue. One wonders why the problem of "misuse" must come up only when it is a question of women's right to live free of violence.
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