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Impact of Sexual Harassment on Women

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Impact of Sexual Harassment on Women

To understand the impact of sexual harassment on women one must listen to the account of its victims as no one conveys the meaning and truth of sexual harassment better than the women who have endured it. In response to the question What kind of emotional response does eve teasing /sexual harassment evoke in you, not a single woman ticked the category of indifferent. The survey of the Gender Study Group shows that most women felt disgusted, insulted and scared by any sort of harassment.

Women often internalize male perceptions of sexual harassment and blame themselves for having brought on the harassment. They not only doubt the validity of their own experiences but begin to believe that they themselves must be 'abnormal', 'cheap' , 'indecent' or deserving the violence that comes their way.

Most respondents, men and women, described 'verbal harassment' as eve teasing and contrasted this with 'physical harassment' which has been seen as sexual harassment. They described eve teasing as relatively harmless behaviour committed usually by strangers, while sexual harassment would be grievous committed by acquaintances or men in positions of institutional power. In addition, most men and women described eve teasing as isolated incidents while sexual harassment would typically be repetitive and sustained over a long period of time. Many respondents said that they felt extreme anger, frustration and helplessness at not being able to do anything about the harassment.

Many women having faced this behaviour also said that they find it difficult to trust or have friendships with men.

In response to the question Has sexual harassment /eve teasing affected your academic/personal development in any way?' ,45% of women stated that sexual harassment on Delhi campus roads has affected their personal or academic development in one way or another. Many women have found a way of handling these situations by changing their personalities but at one level these changes are also forced by the circumstances over which they have no control, and has left some of them bitter. Authority Structures Despite gross instances of sexual harassment in the past the Delhi University administration has not treated sexual harassment as a serious problem which has traumatic consequences for the women.

The university administrators do not want to recongnize the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment faced by women in the University, everyday. The general attitude of the administration has by and large been one that either disbelieves the victim or blames her for 'provoking harassment'. By treating sexual harassment as 'normal' the administration has systematically legimatised the sexist violence women face in the University. 

A great deal of cynicism exists regarding police action. Women said that even when they have gone ahead to complain to the police nothing has been done about it. In our survey 20.2% women hostellers said that they have faced sexual harassment from policemen, this includes staring, winking and lewd comments. The problem of harassment can be sorted out only if the hostel and university authorities and the police work together in tackling it.

Need for a policy on Sexual Harassment

The suggestions made by the Wad Committee has been included in the report. Some of its important provisions are:
Till the time legislation is passed, the university should frame appropriate statutes for dealing with cases of harassment.

The university should appoint a committee of three women teachers to inquire into serious charges of harassment
If this committee records prima facie findings of guilt, the person responsible should be suspended in anticipation of disciplinary proceedings. The Disciplinary Enquiry should be headed b a retired judge and should be associated by one woman member, not connected with the University.

What can women students do?
Women need to strategize about their safety and not simply ' avoid going out in the late evening alone'. Some strategies that women could use in case of Street Harassment are:
  • ignore as a strategy.
  • scream for help.
  • lash out.
  • Push the person away and hit them with slippers / bags.
  • Use self-defense mechanisms E.g. kick them off balance.
  • Note down the number and features of the vehicle.

It is a mater of concern that 91.7% of the women hosteller respondents reported having faced harassment on the campus. This report came out in 1996, however nothing concrete has still been done to tackle this problem. It is about time that the university authorities, the teachers associations and various student bodies take responsibility and through open discussions take a political stand, which would ensure action to make the campus safer for its women students. It is important that we question our own perceptions on the issue of harassment, before we can bring about any change! 

Law on Sexual Harassment

Undeterred by the absence of legislation covering the issue of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace, the Supreme Court has laid down the necessary guidelines and norms in, Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan, for the protection of the fundamental rights of women, violated, as a result of Sexual Harassment at Work. The Court has emphasised that the guidelines and norms being laid down by it had to be duly observed at all workplaces or other institutions until a legislation is enacted for this purpose and that these should be treated as law under Art 141 of the Constitution. These guidelines are in accordance with the recommendations and conventions of various international organisations like the ILO and the European Communities Commission.

The European Communities Commission has emphasised worldwide that the most effective method of combating with this menace is to develop and implement a preventive policy at the enterprise level. Taking their recommendations into considerations, the Supreme Court has laid down the following guidelines: Preventive steps : The employers should take appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment.
These include:
(a) Express prohibition of sexual harassment at the workplace should be notified, published and circulated in appropriate ways. 
(b) The rules/regulations of government and public bodies relating to conduct and discipline should include rules/regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and provide for appropriate penalties in such rules against the offender.
(c) Appropriate work conditions should be provided in respect of work, leisure, health and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at workplaces and no woman employee should have some reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.

Criminal Proceedings:

Where such conduct amounts to a specific offence under the Indian Penal Code or under any other law, the employer shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority.

In order to ensure that the victims are not discriminated against, while dealing with complaints of sexual harassment, the victims should have the option to seek transfer of the perpetrator or their own transfer.

Disciplinary action:
Where such conduct amounts to misconduct in employment as defined by the relevant service rules, disciplinary action should be initiated by the employer in accordance with these rules.

Complaint Mechanism:
Whether or not such conduct constitutes an offence under law or a breach of the service rules, a complaint mechanism should be created in the organisation for redress of the complaint made by the victim.

Complaints Committee:
A complaint mechanism should provide for a Complaints Committee. The Complaints Committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its members should be women. Further, to prevent the possibility of any undue influence from senior levels, the Committee should involve a third party, either NGO or any other body familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.

Workers initiative:
Employees should be allowed to raise issues of sexual harassment in workers meetings and other appropriate forums.

Awareness of the rights of female employees in this regard should be created in particular by prominently notifying the guidelines.

Third party harassment:
Where sexual harassment occurs as a result of an act or omission by any third party or outsider, the employer and person in charge will take all steps necessary and reasonable to assist the affected person in terms of support and preventive action.

The Supreme Court has held in Apparel Export Promotion Council V. A.K.Chopra, that in any case involving charge of sexual harassment or attempt to sexually molest, the courts are required to examine the broader probabilities of the case and not get swayed by insignificant discrepancies or narrow technicalities or the dictionary meaning of the expression 'molestation'. The Court also held that the statement of the victim must be appreciated in the background of the entire case.

Notwithstanding the availability of potential remedies under labour or criminal or tort laws to a victim of sexual harassment, it is now widely accepted that the most effective way of combating with this menace is to situate the primary remedy against sexual harassment in the Sex Discrimination Law itself.

Dowry Death

It is sad that even today the number of dowry deaths in India are so high. Due to the unfulfillment of demands of dowry, many women die at the hands of their in-laws in both rural and urban India. But there is something that can be done about it.

Section 304 B was introduced in the Indian Penal Code in order to strictly deal with and punish the offence of Dowry Death. It was a new offence created with effect from November 19, 1986 by insertion of the provision in the Indian Penal Code providing for a more stringent offence, than provided by Section 498A of the same Act, which deals with punishment for cruelty by husband and his relatives. The ingredients necessary for the application of Section 304B are:

When the death of a woman is caused by any burns or bodily injury, or occurs under unusual circumstances.
And the aforesaid two facts spring within 7 years of the girl's marriage.
And soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or her relative,
And this is in connection with the demand for dowry.

If these conditions exist, it would constitute a dowry death, and the husband and/or his relatives shall be .deemed to have caused her death.For the purposes of this sub section, dowry shall have the same meaning as in Section 2 of the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961. The definition of 'Dowry' includes any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly:

By one party to a marriage to the other party to the marriage; or
By the parents of either party to a marriage or by any other person, to either party to the marriage or to any other person at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of the said parties

Section 304 B also provides that whoever commits a dowry death shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than 7 years but which may extend to imprisonment for life. 

It is true that in criminal jurisprudence the benefit of the doubt is extendable to the accused. This concept of 'benefit of doubt' has an important role to play but within the confines of the stringency of laws. Since the cause of death of a married woman was to occur not in normal circumstances but as a dowry death, for which the evidence was not easily available, as it is mostly confined within the four walls of a house, namely the husband's house, where all likely accused reside, the amendments brought in the concept of deemed dowry death by the husband or the relatives, as the case maybe

In cases of dowry deaths and suicides, circumstantial evidence plays an important role and inferences can be drawn on the basis of direct or indirect evidence. This section lays down stringent provisions by shifting the burden onto the accused by bringing in the deemed clause. According to Section 8-A of the 1961 Act, which came into force for taking or abetting any dowry, the burden to explain is placed on such person against whom the allegation of committing the offence is made. Similarly, under Explanation to Section 113 B of the Indian Evidence Act, there is a presumption that a death caused within 7 years of marriage is a dowry death.

In Ashok Kumar vs. State of Rajasthan where the post mortem report indicated that the smell of kerosene was there in the body and even the burnt hair was smelling of kerosene, it was held that this fact ruled out the statement of the husband's sister that the deceased was the victim of the accidental burning while making tea and also ruled out the remotest possibility of an accident.

The demand for dowry is itself punishable if the other ingredients of Section 304 B are established. In case of Pawan Kumar vs. State of Haryana, the facts were that a few days after the marriage, there was a demand for a scooter and fridge, which when not being met led to repetitive taunts and maltreatment.

The wife finally committed suicide. The Court stated that Section 4 of the Dowry Prohibition Act deals with the penalty of demanding dowry. This makes it clear that even the mere demand for dowry was punishable. The Court thus concluded that the persistent demands for scooter, fridge etc made from the bride after marriage or from her parents, would constitute to be in connection with the marriage and it would be a case of demand of dowry within the meaning of the Section 304 B IPC. It is not always necessary that there be any agreement for dowry. The Court also held that the facts proved cruelty in connection with dowry demand.

In Akula Ravinder vs. State of A.P it was held that death must be proved to be one out of the course of nature and the mere fact that the deceased was young and death was not accidental is not sufficient to establish that death must have occurred otherwise than under normal circumstances.

DISCLAIMER: This discussion is general in nature and is not intended to and does not create a lawyer/client relationship. This discussion should in no way be relied upon or construed as legal advice, particularly since most legal outcomes are highly dependent on the facts of a particular case or situation. This discussion is provided on the condition that it cannot be referred to or quoted in any legal proceeding; if this condition is unacceptable to you, immediately delete this email and do not keep a copy of it in any form. The reader or recipient is strongly urged to consult with a lawyer for legal advice on these matters. Any reliance on the discussion information by someone who has not entered into a written retainer agreement with the lawyer providing the discussion information is at the reader's or recipient's own risk.

Written By: Deepali Chandhoke

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