A 50-something social worker, Bhanwari Devi was gang raped by a group of upper class, influential men, because she had tried to stop the insidious practice of child marriage. Bhanwari Devi was determined to get justice and lodged a case against the offenders. However, the accused was acquitted by a trial court, because everyone, including the village authorities, doctors and the police, dismissed her situation.
This appalling injustice, together with the fighting spirit of Bhanwari Devi, inspired several women’s groups and NGOs to file a petition in the Supreme Court under the collective platform of Vishakha (Vishakha and others V. State of Rajasthan and others, 1997). They demanded justice for Bhanwari Devi and urged action against sexual harassment at work place.
The Supreme Court defined sexual harassment as any unwelcome gesture, behavior, words or advances that are sexual in nature. The court had, for the first time, drawn upon an international human rights law instrument, the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to pass a set of guidelines known as Vishakha guidelines
. Here are some Vishakha guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court:
- It is the onus of the employer to include a rule in the company code of conduct for preventing sexual harassment.
- Organizations must establish complaint committees that are headed by women.
- Initiate disciplinary actions against offenders and safeguard the interests of the victim.
- Female employees shall be made aware of their rights.
Indian Laws for Women: Post-Vishakha Judgment Scenario
The judgment for the Vishakha case was passed in 1997. Six years later, India still does not have any proper legislation to prevent sexual harassment, indicating a necessity for creating Indian laws for women against sexual harassment. Besides, there are hardly any government or non-government establishments that have implemented these guidelines or set up a committee to fight sexual harassment.
However, the guidelines did have some positive impact, with many social groups publicizing and working towards their proper implementation and demanding appropriate Indian laws for women against sexual harassment. This has also led many victims to come out in the open and demanding actions against offenders. A noticeable number of cases are brought into the public knowledge with active participation of the media.
Following the infamous case of sexual harassment of an M.S.University student by her professor, several social activists wrote to the Supreme Court that the Vishakha guidelines were not being implemented at work places. This resulted in the Supreme Court issuing notices to the State and the Central Government to furnish the extent of implementation of the guidelines. The Court also issued orders to associations, such as the Bar Council of India, University Grants Commission and Chartered Accountants Association, asking them about the steps taken to implement the guidelines.
In 1998, a code of conduct was developed by the National Commission for Women (NCW), which expanded the scope and definition of sexual harassment given under the guidelines. In 2001, the NCW designed a draft bill in consultation with women’s rights activists and other experts. This bill, in turn, was amended by the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the Department of Women and Child Development, and later again in 2004. Although attempts have been made to enhance the bill’s scope to create effective Indian laws for women against sexual harassment, organizations like the All India Democratic Women’s Alliance believe that it should be limited to the employer-employee frame to retain its effectiveness