In our Weekly last Friday, we foregrounded the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“PoSH Act”) in the context of the ongoing protests by India’s top wrestlers demanding action against the Wrestling Federation of India Chief, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh who, despite having serious allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him, continues to be scot-free. Interestingly, the Supreme Court passed a judgement later that day, reproving the lapses in the enforcement of the PoSH Act and gave directions for stricter implementation of the provisions of the Act.
While hearing an appeal against the dismissal order of an employee of the Goa University, the bench observed that while (“PoSH Act”) is indeed a ‘salutary’ law, there are grave lapses in its enforcement.
Historically, the rate of reporting as well as initiation of appropriate actions to redress sexual harassment survivors remain miserably low for sporting professionals. The recent complaints highlight the scale of the problem and the pressing need for strengthening the redressal mechanisms.
What is the PoSH Act?
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 criminalizes offences such as sexual harassment, stalking, and voyeurism, obscene remarks etc. directed to a woman during the course of or for any reason of her employment and provides alternative criminal complaint mechanism.
The Act and the allied Rules clearly defined the actions which constitute sexual harassment and their punishments. It also mandates the institutionalisation of complaints committees to make the grievance redressal process accessible and undaunting for women. It includes both physical as well as tacit forms of harassment and harassment against women in a workplace and expands the definition of “workplace” beyond the confines of a brick and mortar office space.
To know more about the Act and the legal remedies it confers on a woman, please refer to our Guide.
10 years later, where do we stand?
The Bench while hearing the case at hand observed that the order of the Committee did not follow the due process. It observed that such deviances are not an isolated incident. They also censured the fact that even now, out of 30 sports federations in India, only 16 have constituted an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
The PoSH Act mandates that every establishment with more than 10 employees must constitute an ICC. The Court also expressed displeasure at the lack of accessible information regarding the PoSH Act and its procedures. This can cause confusion and deter women from registering their complaints. The Bench further observed that even where the ICC exists, there are inconsistencies with regards to their composition and functionality which in turn “ dents the self esteem of a woman” and can deeply impact her physical, emotional and mental health.
What did the Supreme Court say?
The Court issued the following directives:
- All Union and State Government must ensure that all their ministries, departments, authorities and public sector undertakings have an ICC constituted and its composition must strictly adhere to the provisions of the PoSH Act
- Actionable information about the rules, regulations and internal policies related to the PoSH Act, contact details of the concerned ICC members are readily available on websites and other conspicuous platforms and this information is updated periodically.
- Statutory bodies of professionals like bar associations, associations of medical professionals, chartered accountants, architects etc. must also undertake similar exercises towards complying with the PoSH Act.
- Management and authorities of every establishment must promptly sensitise members of ICC and competent local authorities about their duties and the manner in which inquiries must be conducted and actioned upon.
- Regular workshops and seminars must be conducted by managements of organisations and institutions to upskill members of the ICC and inform their constituents about the provisions of the Act, the Rules and all relevant developments.
- The National Legal Services Authority(NALSA) and the State Legal Services Authorities(SLSAs) should also regularly conduct such awareness and sensitization programmes for management bodies, authorities and employees of institutions to impress upon them the importance of the PoSH Act and sensitise them on the larger scope of the Act.
- The National Judicial Academy and the State Judicial Academies must include such sensitisation workshops in their academic calendars to build capacity of judicial officers and develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for dealing with cases under this Act.
- Ensuring a copy of this judgement is circulated among the concerned authorities of all relevant stakeholders.
These directives are not only timely but also crucial to reinforce compliance to the provisions of the PoSH Act. It is an essential step to safeguard the dignity of women in workplaces.