The Internal Complaints Committee of the University of Hyderabad (UoH) organized a webinar to mark the 8th anniversary of the ‘Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act’ on December 9, 2021. The said Act represented a watershed moment for women’s rights and in the fight against workplace or other kinds of institutional harassment. The program was organized as per a directive of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India and attended by many distinguished speakers.
It was organized online via ‘Google Meet’ and streamed live on YouTube for the benefit of the entire campus community via the UoH channel, as well as shared via the social media platforms of the university.
Professor Geeta K. Vemuganti, School of Medical Sciences, UoH gave the opening address and thanked everyone involved and laying out the programme for the webinar. She said that it was a big responsibility for all of them as it was the eighth anniversary of the said act, and the Ministry had requested to conduct a commemoration program which was organized with the assent and cooperation of the Vice-Chancellor.
Professor B.J. Rao Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad gave the welcome address. He reflected on some of the pertinent facts regarding the act and called the anniversary an important milestone not only for the university but also for the society and country at large. He also wondered why it had taken so long for the act to come into place, but added that it was better late than never. He emphasized on the “moral and consciousness bind” which was important for humanity to stay healthy and added that it was more the anniversary of the action than of the act in itself.
Smt. Kondaveeti Satyavathi, Secretary – Bhoomika Women’s Collective highlighted the importance of the anniversary by mentioning that she had conducted three talks earlier that same day – and it had become an important day across the country. She reminded the audience of the important historical figures that led to the passing of the revolutionary act, which presently takes into account the sexual harassment faced by women at the workplace – both in the organized as well as the unorganized sector. She reminded the audience that Bhanwari Devi is still very much politically active, and hasled a march of 10,000 people to Delhi. She talked of Bhanwari Devi’s “lineage” as it were, where she worked as an Anganwadi worker in a remote village of Rajasthan and was responsible for surveying the area under her charge and stopping child marriages. It was on one of those rounds that she successfully managed to stop a child marriage in an upper-caste family. As an act of retribution and seeking vengeance, 5 male members of the same family gang-raped Bhanwari Devi in front of her husband. The police refused to file an FIR or take her statement. It was only after uproar created by the media that the case went to trial – initially in the lower courts and then the Rajasthan High Court where the judge gave a questionable judgment while clearing the accused of rape.
Due to this travesty of justice, an NGO called Vishakha filed a PIL in the Supreme Court that ultimately brought about the ‘Vishakha Guidelines’ as part of a judgment delivered by Justice Verma and Justice Sujata in 1997. It was only with these that the development of the ‘LCC’, later called ICC was to be installed in every workplace.
In continuation of her talk, the speaker called the 2013 act “quite a comprehensive law”, since the drafting committee included participation from the unorganized sector including the domestic workers as well as the agricultural labourers. The questions of what might happen if the employer fails to act, as well as what would happen to the offender were also answered through the act. The speaker noted that in workplaces where awareness is high, the number of enquiries go high as well. She described her experience and said that it was only when she had reached out to working women and explained to them the purview of the act that the number of complaints had increased. As an NGO member, their prime function was to be impartial, and to publicize the act using posters, seminars and workshops and whatever was possible.
She also added that there is a need for amendments to be made to the act – there are still issues of compensation to be resolved, that is, how do we fix the amount of compensation and who pays for it.
Prof. K. Sunitha Rani, Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad delved into the historical context of the Act, and described the visits made by the committee to several universities and how they found that there were several grievances with the covert abuse of power and positions of authority, even in private institutions which could not be under the purview of the act.
She brought to light the culture of victim blaming that persists, and a “hierarchy of credibility” that exists for women who come out asking for help. The importance is often on the image, the location, the identity of the woman and her previous relationships. She emphasized that a proper, detailed hearing is what each victim deserves. She said that no woman should be subjected to “interrogation and investigation” when the very reason they come forward is to avoid running between courts and the police station, and demand action on the institutional level.
She highlighted the need for more sensitivity, and to take into account the various hierarchies that exist amongst women and especially, trans-women. She pointed out the need to conduct orientations for both the ICC and the students since “strong resistance towards sensitization has been displayed by both the staff and non-teaching staff”. A two-credit course on discrimination, preferably mandatory rather than an optional, might be a step in the right direction.
Prof Vasanthi Srinivasan, Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad tapped into her previous experiences of raising awareness and she said she did the elementary things of having the committee meetings on a timely basis, did publicity using posters, responded to complaints, recorded and documented the procedures and sent the findings of the report to both the parties involved.
She highlighted Chapter Four of the Act, which talks of reconciliation instead of monetary settlements. There were considerable misgivings about this clause of the act and she cited another scholar, Prof. Ayesha Kidwai, who stated that reconciliation is presented “as if it was the normative and foremost expectation of law”. The aggrieved woman would often be forced to settle, and these compromises made would only restore the status quo.
She highlighted the concepts of reconciliation and restorative justice when it comes to dealing with grievances. The reason due to which she was interested in the former was because she observed a pattern of differential effect the complaints had on women, owing to power play. She mentioned a few instances and also underscored the burden of evidence that mostly falls on the woman. She had attempted to bring out a neutral newsletter where the timeline of the act, the complaint and action taken was specified to quell rumours about the woman but keeping the identities of both parties undisclosed.
She also talked of restorative justice where extremes such as rustication of the accused were rarely pursued. The speaker also shared examples of her documentation from 2015 where although the nature and the dates of complaint, the recommendation of the committee and the remarks were clearly mentioned but a balance between transparency and privacy was maintained.
Prof. Shantha Sinha, Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad said she was part of the early days of what was then called GS-CASH (Gender Sensitive Committee against Sexual Harassment) and handled it like a court. She referred to Prof. Vasanthi Srinivasan’s talk and conveyed regrets over not dealing with it in a more nuanced manner.
She recounted an incident where school girls had approached their teacher about a boy who would stalk them after school. The teacher did not know how to deal with it and the police got involved hence. The policeman addressed the situation by asking the girls to beat the boy up with their slippers. The 16-year-old boy, humiliated, committed suicide, an example of the need for such acts and procedures to deal firmly yet proportionately with cases of harassment.
The speaker conveyed her disagreements with a perception that often came into the line of questioning by many- as to why men harass women sexually, and women do not, if they are born equal. Most answers allude to the physical needs of men. Refuting the stereotype, she pointed out that only patriarchy enables men to think that they can get away with violating a woman’s bodily integrity. It is because of the “toxic masculinity” that men inherit as they grow up in the society, that on one hand they learn to be protectors of women and then also become their violators.
The speaker further pointed out that with there being a spectrum of sexualities and genders, conventional notions regarding the “binary of the man and the woman” and the “ideal family” have to be questioned, along with the questions of how they affect morals and ethics of the modern world. Returning to the aspect of harassment, she said that “there is no point in being neutral”, when in most of the cases the aggrieved victim is a woman. There are exceptions on a case-to-case basis, where the aggrieved is a man. She concluded by saying that we should not forget the women who have struggled in the courts and on the streets and fought long and hard over decades for the laws and policies that we have now.
Prof. Vijayalakshmi B, Law College, Osmania University, Hyderabad expressed her views through a pre-recorded speech in the session where she talked about the legal aspects of the act. She emphasized upon the fact that the term “harassment” is not clearly defined and leaves room for a lot of interpretation. She reiterated the point made earlier in the session about Bhanwari Devi and her struggle that led to the Vishakha guidelines. In this context, she also enumerated the various fundamental rights granted by the constitution – the right to life, the right to property, the right to education, the right to adequate means of livelihood.
The speaker laid bare the disturbing statistics that portrayed how rampant the problem is – it is reported that 51% of women in the country have been touched without consent and 41% of women agreed that they were harassed using technological means. In Delhi alone, the cases of harassment have increased exponentially over the years.
After the speakers concluded, it was time for the Question-and-Answer session moderated by Prof. Geeta K. Vemuganti and Prof. Usha Raman.
Summary of the Q&A Session
Dr. KPMSV Padmasree opined that the students are quite immature when it comes to making complaints and grievances are often made for simple academic things. She said that although there are committees at every level, the awareness amongst the faculty to choose which grievances are applicable is not there, so there is an increased need to provide training. To this, Dr. Usha Raman answered that one should take grievances at their face value because the nuances of law are often not known and there are blurred lines. Moreover, there exist many generational differences between professors and students on shifting gender norms, pronouns and societal differences. Dr. Geeta K. Vemuganti, also highlighted that in medical terminology anything stationary should be calibrated and anything moving must be trained, pointing to the fact that people (as moving elements) require constant training.
Dr. G Padmaja pointed out that there is a need for repeated talks and webinars for the faculty as well as students, geared towards sensitization. Prof. Arshia Jabeen asked whether anonymous letters sent to malign a woman’s reputation would fall under the purview of the sexual harassment act? The members in the meeting confirmed that it would, even if the nuances would be for legal experts to decide.
Dr Shree Gyanmote, Hindi Officer, UoH proposed a vote of thanks. She thanked all the members involved, including the ones behind the scenes for arranging a program within such a short duration.
Contributed by Ms. Loni Das, Department of Communication
The complete webinar can be viewed on the link given below: