Sexual Harassment of Women has been known but unacknowledged by the majority of people for a considerable amount of time. It is only recently that actions against it have taken momentum and people, in general, have become more sensitive to the issue. Cruelties against women at the workplace and otherwise are universal and exist in the most developed of Nations as well as developing and under-developed countries. According to UNICEF, 13 million girls between the age of 15 and 19 have experienced forced sex, which is only one aspect of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not just forcible attempts at sexual activities but involves sexual teasing, jokes, remarks or questions as well as whistling.
WHO reports that 1 in 3 women are subjected to either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. However, the majority of sexual violence was suffered at the hands of intimate partners. There are varied reasons for this, ranging from individual, family, community, and society levels. Some of the most prominent factors for domestic sexual violence are the following:
· Lower levels of education among both men and women. Lack of education among women makes them subservient to their male counterparts and induces a sense of dependence which deepens their vulnerability. Whereas uneducated men believe that they have a right to inflict violence upon women’s bodies.
· The community and society give a higher status to men and women are advised to be silent when faced with atrocities for the marriage to sustain, as a woman’s marital status is directly correlated to her sanctity.
· The laws on property ownership, miscarriage, divorce, and child custody are discriminatory towards women. Not only this, there is a lack of law enforcement addressing violence against women.
· There are gender-specific norms that limit women’s autonomy and attitudes condoning or justifying violence are seen as normal or acceptable.
155 countries have passed laws on domestic violence and 140 countries have laws on sexual harassment in the workplace but even where law exists, it doesn’t necessitate that they comply with international standards and recommendations. Moreover, laws may not always be implemented and enforced.
Sexual Harassment at the workplace has grown over time and no official figures are accurate as most of these cases go unreported. According to Harvard Business Review, only 20% of women who had been harassed reported the crime. Women have a fear of negative consequences and that they would be labeled as ‘trouble-makers'. Men and women have different perspectives as to what is perceived as ‘sexual harassment’ where mostly women are blamed as overly sensitive and men don’t understand why they have been blamed.
In the Vishakha judgment of 1997, the Supreme Court defined sexual harassment at the workplace and pronounced preventive, prohibitory and redress measures. It gave directives towards a legislative mandate to the proposed guidelines. Before the Vishakha judgment, there was no law in India to govern the matter of sexual harassment at the workplace. The Vishakha guidelines were derived from the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. However, the Indian Constitution has provisions against discrimination, and sexual harassment of women violates their rights under the following Articles:
-Article 14: Right to Equality.
-Article 15: Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
-Article 19(1)(g): Right to a safe environment, free from sexual harassment.
-Article 21: Right to life and right to practice any profession and carry on any occupation, trade or business.
The Vishakha guidelines proposed the formation of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) comprising of a complaints committee headed by a woman, a special counselor and provisions for the safety of women like maintenance of confidentiality. It is mandatory to involve a third party like an NGO which is familiar with the issue of women’s rights and sexual harassment. The formation of ICC, if followed and held accountable, can go a long way in upholding the rights of women.
The most prominent civil uprising to uphold the rights of women in the workplace has been the 'Me Too Movement', where thousands of women came to the forefront and spoke against the harassment caused to them. It was founded in 2006 to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly women of color and to give them a voice, helping them to come out of the trauma they suffered. The idea behind this movement was “Empowerment through Empathy” where the entire women community came together to stand with each other.
For the movement, the “silence breakers” could be any man or woman who comes forward to say that they had been the victim of abuse. Though it does not have any formal medium of the functioning or a core team, it provides empowerment and courage to individuals of all sex, race and religion to talk about the bitter truth of sexual abuse. Due to this, awareness about women’s rights in the workplace was created and it helped men understand the consequences they might face.
In a review, 63% of women questioned reported having been harassed, with 33% experiencing it more than once. Factors like women’s age, supervisor’s gender, blue-collar or white-collar role, marital status did not matter. However, the movement has triggered a negative trend where employers are skeptical of hiring women in positions that require proximity. 10% of both men and women employers said that they would be less willing than previously to hire women.
The reason given by them is mostly in relation to the false accusations that they might face. This fear has arisen due to multiple cases that were forged to downplay the power of the employer. There have been instances where women falsely accused men of sexually harassing them and the legal enquiries proved otherwise. This action of a few has rendered a looming question over the entire movement and the rights of women to exercise their power of speech at large. Keeping these cases in mind, some perpetrators have filed defamation suits against women for allegedly conspiring against the man to harm his reputation.
To curb these multiple instances of injustice against women, in 2019, WHO, UN Women and UN Agencies published a framework for preventing violence against women, called RESPECT Women, which stands for:
R- Relationship Skills Strengthening
E- Empowerment of Women
S- Services ensured
P- Poverty reduced
E- Enabling environments to be created (schools, workplace, public spaces)
C- Child and adolescent abuse prevented
T- Transformed attitudes, beliefs and norms
There needs to be a political commitment from leaders and policy makers to speak out and condemn violence against women. Along with this, law enforcement and policies which address violence against women and promote gender equality need to be facilitated. Strengthening of institutions and capacities of the health, education, law enforcement and social services sector to address violence against women is of utmost importance.
Photo Courtesy: Everypixel
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