Human Rights

How two definitions give teeth to new sexual harassment law

TenzinNamdolThe extensive definitions of the terms “sexual harassment” and “workplace” in the long overdue Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“Sexual Harassment Act”) helps assure working women of safer workplaces and aims to protect them from harassment during routine employment.

The landmark judgment of Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan, in which the Supreme Court of India laid down the guidelines (“the Guidelines”) that governed sexual harassment of women at the workplace until the legislative vacuum was filled, adopted the definition in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination of Women (“CEDAW”). It covered a broad spectrum of acts that amount to sexual harassment including any direct or implied unwelcome sexual behaviour, physical contact, asking for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, and showing of pornography. Though it is a comprehensive definition and gender neutral, it was limited in application because neither the Supreme Court nor the CEDAW had defined the term “workplace”.

SexualHarassmentAtTheWorkplaceMOOC2In 2013, a committee headed by retired Justice J.S. Verma (the same judge who had laid down the Guidelines), which was tasked with finding definite solutions to the rising problem of crimes against women, published their report. It praised the definition of sexual harassment provided in the then Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, 2010 (“Sexual Harassment Bill”), except for the criticism that the use of the word “unwelcome” resulted in ambiguity. It also appreciated the definition of “workplace” as appropriately broad for including the unorganised sector, which includes domestic workers and women working in the armed forces.

The Sexual Harassment Act, which incorporated some suggestions made by the Justice Verma Committee, used a broader definition of sexual harassment than that provided in the Guidelines and the CEDAW. The definition even includes circumstances of implied or explicit promise or threat to a woman’s employment prospects or of creation of a hostile work environment or humiliating treatment, which can affect her health or safety. This definition only applies to women harassed by men at the workplace.

The Sexual Harassment Act has meaningfully specified the act of sexual harassment by defining what comprises a workplace. The definition includes organisations, departments, offices, branches, and units in the public, private, organised, and unorganised sectors, hospitals, nursing homes, educational institutions, sports institutes, stadia, sports complexes, and even places visited by the employee during the course of employment which includes transportation taken for work.

The wide scope of the definitions of the terms “sexual harassment” and “workplace”, which acknowledge harassment at the regular work environment, immediately make the Sexual Harassment Act a more inviting and inclusive legislation for all women aggrieved by such harassment. These definitions are in accordance with the existing international law and cover and protect women in every kind of work environment.

Tenzin Namdol is part of the faculty on


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