New Sexual Harrassment Bill Passes Lok Sabha

The Lok Sabha, one of the legislative houses in the Indian governmental system, has passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill 2012 on September 3, 2012.  It is believed that the Rajya Sabha, the second legislative house, will pass the bill and it will successfully make its way through the Indian Parliament.

According to the Bangalore Mirror’s article, which cites a Supreme Court advocate, “the definition of sexual harassment in the bill is wider than in most countries which have such legislation.”

The language in the bill defines sexual harassment as “any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behavior (whether directly or by implication), namely; (i) physical contact and advances; (ii) a demand or request for sexual favors; (iii) making sexually coloured remarks; or (iv) showing pornography; or (v) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.”

Concern is being shown regarding the phrase “sexually coloured remark.”  According to one advocate’s opinion, that phrase can easily include India’s infamous “item numbers.”  Item numbers are usually the more suggestive and most popular song/dance in an Indian movie.  The advocate interviewed by the Bangalore Mirror opined that even having such a number as your ring-tone on your phone or playing the song on your laptop could qualify as sexual harassment under the new legislation.

Another corporate advocate stated his opinion that the law could be detrimental to women in the workplace.  According to him, if the law is as stringent as it is feared at the moment, corporations could use it as another reason to not hire women.

The bill in its current form makes it mandatory for an employing company to set up a “local complaints committee” to be headed by a woman.  Those committees will investigate any complaints of sexual harassment.  The bill covers all women in workplaces including schools, colleges, hospitals, domestic help and even agriculture.  Women who have been found to have been sexually harassed will be entitled to compensation.

One very valid criticism of the bill is that it is not gender neutral.  A man subject to sexual harassment remains without a remedy.

It remains to be seen how the bill is applied by the courts and used by the public.  It also remains to be seen whether attempts are made to use the law to reign in the film and tv industries.  Corporations will now have to take seriously the mandate to set up processes to deal with sexual harassment complaints.  According to the article, companies have already started to take out insurance policies that specifically cover sexual harassment complaints.

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