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Complaints Committees - key to safe workspaces

Complaints Committees - key to safe workspaces
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Highlights

All pervasive but no longer under- reported sexual harassment cases are making headlines the world over through print and media channels with  momentum gained from social media campaigns like the “Me too” movement. While harassment seems to have increased in proportion to women’s visibility at work places,

All pervasive but no longer under- reported sexual harassment cases are making headlines the world over through print and media channels with momentum gained from social media campaigns like the “Me too” movement. While harassment seems to have increased in proportion to women’s visibility at work places, it has gone largely unreported in the past and was not non-existent as generally perceived. Tales of perpetrators from all walks of life that include mighty CEO’s, celebrities, office staff and business tycoons have been hogging headlines across the world.

Thanks to social media campaigns and legislation in over 75 countries, many women including so called “power women” have found the courage to speak out, some of them recounting ordeals they have suffered for years. Increasingly seen as a violation of human rights, the onus now rests heavily on a complaints process that protects victims from retaliation.

A notification regarding the formation of an Internal complaints committee in the High Courts of the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in the last week of January as mandated by “The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013” is therefore a welcome step considering the gravity of the problem and the realisation that the judiciary, the ultimate hope in a democracy is not insulated from this social malaise.

The committee chaired by Justice PV Sanjay Kumar which has ten members including a judge and advocates representing both courts and an NGO represented by Kondaveeti Satayavati of the Bhumika Women’s Collective interestingly has the word “gender sensitisation” included in it.

Satyavati editor, of the Bhumika women’s magazine and a crusader for women’s rights who is on the “Internal Complaints Committees” of many organisations including the Railways and the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) looks forward to her new assignment but admits that she was pleasantly surprised to see the gazette notification.

“I was at the forefront of vociferous protests before the High Court when a junior advocate Sangeetha Sharma committed suicide on June 14, 2000 leaving behind a note that stated harassment by her senior. Her complaint to the Bar council yielded no results then and emboldened more associates and friends of his to join forces in harassing her. Today I have the opportunity to prevent harassment that is very real and traumatic for such victims as well as create awareness about gender sensitization in the same organization,” she reminisces.

With Internal complaints committees ensuring that action is taken and victim safety is assured there is a scope for increasing confidence among women and fear in the heart of offenders according to her. Her confidence stems from the fact that increments have been stopped, punishment transfers set in motion and jobs lost in cases of severe harassment in organisations where she is a committee member.

“I insist on following the guidelines and having recommendations implemented. I can say with confidence that these committees have ensured transparency and instilled fear among perpetrators,” she adds. The names and telephone numbers of committee members on display boards as specified by the 2013 Act provides easy access to victims who can reach out to them when they have a problem and this can be a deterrent in itself she feels.

Admitting that “sexually coloured” remarks are sometimes difficult to comprehend Satyavati however says it is not difficult to nail the victims. A case where a victim had recorded sexually explicit remarks made by her colleague who called her at midnight in a drunken state was viewed very seriously with the harasser losing his job she cites. Having dealt with 15 cases of harassment over the last three years she feels that “Local Complaints Committees” (LCC) in the unorganised sector and “Internal Complaints Committees” in the organised sector are extremely important in ensuring that work places are made safe for women.

Satyavati’s plan of action (POA) for the judiciary in both states includes creating extensive awareness of gender issues through seminars and meetings. Recalling an awareness campaign at the BITS campus where she spoke to students she says she was told by the management that “all was well” and there were no such issues on their campus.

As she was leaving, one of the students came up to her with a complaint of the harassment she was facing and how she was scared to talk about it. “On the surface everything may seem calm and peaceful but probe further and you will see things as they are. Many women are afraid to complain out of fear that they will be “blamed” despite being victims. With these committees in place, they can speak without fear,” she declares.

The first step to being prepared is being aware. With increased awareness and confidence that help is available, women can look forward to working in a stress free atmosphere protected from predators hovering around them. All they have to do is to be aware of their rights and speak up against harassment, as silence is not always golden.

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