Is a Safe working place a legal right? What is the background of this unique legislation was brought into effective?
A safe workplace is a woman’s legal right. Indeed, the Constitutional doctrine of equality and personal liberty is contained in Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. These articles ensure a person’s right to equal protection under the law, to live a life free from discrimination on any ground and to protection of life and personal liberty. This is further reinforced by the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and which is ratified by India. Often described as an international bill of rights for women, it calls for the equality of women and men.
Sexual harassment constitutes a gross violation of women's right to equality and dignity. It has its roots in patriarchy and its attendant perception that men are superior to women and that some forms of violence against women are acceptable. One of these is workplace sexual harassment, which views various forms of such harassment, as harmless and trivial. Often, it is excused as ‘natural’ male behaviour it causes serious harm and is also a strong manifestation of sex discrimination at the workplace. It is an infringement of the fundamental rights of a woman, under Article 19.
In India, there was no legislation which deals with cases of sexual harassment at work places. Although, there is Indian Penal Code which deals with cases of molestations, attempts to rape, rape etc, but there was a vacuum as far as the harassment at work places.
This situation was prevailing until such time, the Supreme Court of India intervened in 1998, and arising out of the pronouncement of land mark judgment, the Government of India came out of this Act which has been brought into force from 9th December,2013
In 1992, a rural level change agent, Bhanwari Devi, was engaged by the state of Rajasthan as a Sathin [friend] to work towards the prevention of the practice of child marriages. During the course of her work, she prevented the marriage of a one-year old girl in the community. Her work was met with resentment and attracted harassment from men of that community. Bhanwari Devi reported this to the local authority but no action was taken. That omission came at great cost – Bhanwari was subsequently gang raped by those very men.
Although a criminal case was registered and the case was taken up, she could not get justice at levels of judiciary including the High Court of Rajasthan. All the accused were acquitted. An NGO, Vishaka at New Delhi, took up the case before the Supreme Court of India by filing a public litigation petition.
After, hearing, the Supreme Court came very heavily and pronounced the land mark judgment and held that sexual harassment of women at work places violates the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The Supreme Court laid down guidelines for all the employers to follow strictly, failing which, it would amount to contempt of Court. It also directed the parliament to come out with a Legislations on the same lines and also that until such time, the guidelines of the Supreme Court would be the law of the land.
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