Sunday, October 19, 2008

Breaking the silence

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 19, 2008


Breaking the silence

The economy is in meltdown mode and our political parties are in election mode. So even as those who cannot take it anymore are opting out of life altogether, old wounds are being opened again to ignite communal passions, resulting in the loss of life and injury to many who want to live. It is a time when it would be easy to panic, about one’s personal future and about the future of the country.

Yet, even at times of apparent madness, you hear sane voices that remind you that all is not lost; that there are still institutions that understand the silent emergencies that people face in ostensibly normal times.

A recent ruling by the Bombay High Court can be viewed as one of these positive flickers of hope. Unfortunately, despite the relevance of the judges’ comments, the case has had little coverage in the media.

Encouraging observations

In a ruling on a case of sexual harassment against a private sector company, the two-judge bench has made observations that would encourage women who face such problems but are afraid to talk about them.

A woman employee of an Indian company filed the case. She says her superior male colleague subjected her to harassment. Initially, she did not complain, as she was afraid of losing her job. But, she alleges, that the officer posted her out to another project site “for not cooperating” with him. Four years later, when the project failed to take off, all the other women employees were given the option of moving out except her. The harassment also continued. In 2004, the woman finally complained to the State Women’s Commission and also to the District Collector. She also filed an FIR with the local police station. The women’s commission sent a notice to the company asking it to inquire into the woman’s complaint. The company appointed an enquiry officer, an advocate, to look into the complaint. The latter exonerated the officer against whom the complaint had been made. Within a week of his report, the woman was dismissed from service.

Even then she did not give up and went to the Labour Court and complained about unfair dismissal. The Labour Court upheld her appeal and directed the company to reinstate her last year. The company failed to comply with the Labour Court’s ruling.

The Bombay High Court’s ruling is important for a number of reasons. For one, it reminds us that the law of the land requires that work places where women are employed must institute a committee headed by a woman and consisting of at least 50 per cent of women members and a civil society representative to look into such complaints. In this instance, the company did not do this and instead appointed a single person to inquire into the matter.

Secondly, the case reminds us of the important role that women’s commissions can play in such cases. Women are often afraid to go directly to court. The women’s commission is often the first step. If the woman had not gone to the women’s commission, perhaps her case would never have reached the court. A woman who suffers sexual harassment is in a very lonely place. She is afraid to speak out for fear of losing her job. And if she does, she faces the additional problem of not being employable as other companies might see her as some kind of “trouble-maker”. As a result, most women silently bear harassment and sometimes voluntarily opt out of jobs or positions where they are harassed. The silence ensures that more of this kind of harassment continues.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)

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