From #metoo to #themtoo

The limits of the laws against sexual harassment in the workplace were amply in evidence over the past two weeks as actor Tanushree Dutta’s #metoo revelations sparked a storm of cathartic retrospective accusations from women in media and entertainment. These allegations, some dating back to the nineties, should not be dismissed as past transgressions that qualify for some sort of statute of limitations imposed by a discomfited society. Women could not speak out then nor were they likely to be believed or heeded if they did. On the edge of the third decade of the 21st century, it would be plain wrong to disempower them of this right.  

But the Vishakha laws, as the Act against sexual harassment in the workplace is colloquially known after the NGO that lobbied for this legislation, are silent on this aspect — understandably, since this issue was not in play in the late nineties when the guidelines were first framed. Reconsidering them in the light of recent development would be a useful task for Maneka Gandhi, minister for women and child development, who has energetically moved to strengthen women’s rights in the workplace.

The time-bar is one aspect of the challenge. The other, as we have seen in the allegations in Bollywood, is the predicament of women in sectors that are outside institutional frameworks. Today, it is mostly actors who have spoken out; given the scale of their complaints, it is inconceivable that the thousands of women who work as dancers, wardrobe assistants, make-up artists and in other auxiliary functions enjoy havens of safety. The same argument would apply to women who work in building sites, as domestic helpers, those in retail and hospitality, agriculture and scores of other non-corporatised functions.

The Vishakha laws, which stipulate the need to convene internal complaints committees for institutions, do not deal with this issue adequately. Under the Act, each district in India is required to set up a Local Complaints Committee. According to a Parliamentary reply, 29 states and all Union Territories have set up local complaints committees, and Ms Gandhi introduced the SHe box for registering sexual harassment complaints online.

On paper, this sounds great. In practice, the process is so clunky as to be ineffectual. One basic problem: Few working women are aware of these committees and how to access them — so much so that one law firm even advised clients to submit Right to Information applications to find them, which defeats the purpose.  

Part of the problem is that the processes laid out for institutional complaints committees and district-level ones are identical. It is possible for those procedures to work within an office set-up — and even that is problematic when men dominate the organisation set-up. In a district-level committee, assuming it functions at all, there is little recourse if the accused declines to appear before it, or if the complaint involves, say, a politically powerful man.

The key difficulty in my view is that considerable responsibility is vested in the district officer to implement the findings of a local complaints committee. Given the de-facto quasi-political nature of this post, where transfers can be frequent and punitive, the laws need to seek some other solution to insulate local complaints committees from the political process. Vesting the powers in fast-track courts on the lines of the consumer courts, which have developed a reputation for being reasonably efficient, may be one solution. This is not so unthinkable since the law vests internal complaints committees with the powers of civil courts.

Finally, at the cost of attracting much opprobrium in these febrile times, may I suggest that the sexual harassment laws become gender-neutral. Although it is true that women remain the chief victims of sexual harassment, it is worth remembering that the #metoo movement in the US, from which we draw our inspiration, included men who complained about sexual harassment from other men. denouement would be Exhibit A.

In India, as long as homosexuality was deemed an “unnatural offence”, the opportunities for men to complain of harassment by male bosses or colleagues were non-existent (a problem that would apply to gay women as well). The Supreme Court ruling of September this year alters the situation. Extending the ambit of the law across the gender divide would also mark an acknowledgment that women are beginning to acquire roles of power in the workplace, and employees need to be protected from their possible predatory sexual attentions too.  

Renaming the law “The Sexual Harassment of Employees in the Workplace (Prevention and Redressal Act), therefore, would introduce an element of fairness and, most importantly, greater credibility to the eternally vexed issue of handling gender relations in the workplace.

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