Bhanwari Devi was a poor rural woman working under the Women Development Programme who raised her voice against child marriage culture and enraged the feudal patriarchs. Consequently, in September 1992, she was brutally gang-raped by five men.
However, not only at that time but even today, gruesome incidents like these persist. So, with increasing cases of sexual harassment in the workplace, the Supreme Court has to intervene each time. But the question here is, what incidents prompted the Apex Court to step in and lay down “Vishakha Guidelines” back in 1997 to combat crimes like sexual harassment at workplace?
Let’s discuss these in this article with some interesting FAQs at the end.
What was Vishaka’s case?
The inhumane act against women has made it impossible to realize the objective of equality and freedom enshrined under the Indian Constitution. And those who raise their voices against the prevailing injustices in society are subjected to degrading and inhumane treatment. This is what happened in one of the landmark cases: Vishaka and Ors. v. State of Rajasthan (1997).
Bhanwari Devi, a poor rural woman, raised her voice against child marriage culture and consequently, in September 1992 she was brutally gang-raped by five men.
It was a horrifying act against a social activist in the State of Rajasthan who was performing her duties during the course of her employment.
The Trial Court acquitted the accused due to a lack of evidence and denied her access to justice. However, she was determined to fight against the social evil.
Various women's rights activists and NGOs launched a campaign for justice. One NGO, namely Vishaka, filed a Writ Petition as a class action before Supreme Court for enforcement of Fundamental Rights, mainly Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution of India.
Why is this case important?
It gave us the harassment law. In a recent example, despite both the judicial and legislative reforms, still the high-profile sportswomen with no other alternative had to organize a protest for enforcing their rights against sexual harassment in the workplace, the Wrestler’s protest at Jantar Mantar. The verdict is not out but every woman must know her rights under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act and even a man must be aware of his rights available in case he is getting framed.
Vishaka Guidelines by Supreme Court
This petition was brought with the ultimate objective of filling the legislative vacuum existing regarding sexual harassment at the workplace through the judicial process and finding appropriate solutions to accomplish the true concept of gender equality.
Consequently, the Supreme Court bench led by CJI J.S. Verma, J. Sujata Manohar and J. B.N. Kirpal delivered the judgment on August 1997. It accompanied the writ of mandamus, considering this an incident of recurring nature.
The key notations made by the Supreme Court in the landmark judgment of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan are:
The Court highlighted and upheld the significance of various rights including the Right to a safe working environment [Article 19(1)(g)], Gender equality (Article 14), Right to life with human dignity (Article 21).
Court relied on Convention on Eliminations of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and observed that right to work is an alienable right and the state shall adopt necessary means to avoid discrimination against women.
Court described the act of sexual harassment which includes within its ambit not only any act involving physical contact but also any such act that creates a hostile and unsafe work environment. For instance verbal abuse, showing pornography, demanding sexual favors, etc.
Exercising its power under Article 32 of Indian Constitution, the Apex Court laid down Vishakha Guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment of women and mandated it for the employers.
The following guidelines were prescribed:
Necessary advertisement/notification to be framed for prohibition of sexual harassment,
Employer to have written complaint mechanism
Duty of an employer to provide counseling to any victim
Mandated employer to maintain conducive and appropriate working conditions for women with respect to work, health and hygiene.
Informing the cases and details of sexual harassment complaints by employer to appropriate state authorities.
Displaying and notifying the guidelines for spreading awareness about right to equality.
Consequence of Vishaka Guidelines – Legislative Enactment
On the basis of directions issued by Justice Verma in Vishaka Case, the Parliament enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the POSH Act for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment at workplace. Following are the significant provisions of the newly enacted law –
Investigating Committees – Committees such as the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and Local Complaints Committee (LCC) to be constituted for investigating cases of Sexual Harassment and completing inquiries within a period of 90 days.
Preventive Measures – Chapter VI and Section 19 of the Act deal with the duties of an employer, which include:
Providing a safe working environment
Organizing workshops and awareness campaigns at regular intervals
Prominent displaying of notices highlighting the penal consequences of sexual harassment
Providing necessary facilities to ICC/LCC, etc.
Fundamentally, the act covers the constitution of committees, its powers and functions, duties of employers and various other authorities, and inquiry procedures into complaints of harassment.
Wrestlers Protest and Sexual Harassment Case
In January 2023, some well-known prominent wrestlers, including Olympic medalists like Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat among others, started protesting against the President of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, alleging that he sexually assaulted some female wrestlers one of whom is a minor.
Indian Olympic Association constituted a seven-member ‘Oversight Committee’ under the charge of Mary Kom to probe into allegations of sexual harassment against the WFI Chief.
In response to the plea filed by wrestlers in Supreme Court on 28th April 2023, Delhi Police assured the Court that it will file an FIR against the WFI Chief.
One of the major concerns raised in the plea filed by the wrestlers before SC pertains to the violation of provisions of Vishakha guidelines POSH Act, 2013. It was contended that there is an erroneous failure to duly constitute the Internal Complaint Committee in accordance to the POSH Act, 2013. Additionally, it was also contended that there is lack of an adequate mechanism for awareness building among sportspersons, for grievance redressal, etc.
Vishaka guidelines and Section 4 of the POSH Act, 2013 prescribe that the Chairperson of the Internal Complaint Committee shall be a woman and more than half of the members of the committee shall be women.
Therefore, it can be concluded that despite judicial activism and legislative enactment, we as a nation failed to provide women a safe and healthy working environment. Renowned sports players had to come to street protesting for such basic human right. At this juncture, it is pertinent to consider that how will India move forward and prosper in any field if such human rights are violated.
To know more about the Wrestlers Protest, read this!
Competitive exams questions on Vishaka Guidelines
1. The judgment of the SC in the case of Vishaka Guidelines relates to?
a. Dowry Death
b. Sati system
c. Sexual Harassment at Workplace
2. Which of these was laid down by the Supreme Court in Vishaka Guidelines?
a. Necessary advertisement/notification to be framed for prohibition of sexual harassment,
b. Employer to have written complaint mechanism
c. Duty of an employer to provide counseling to any victim
d. All of the above
3. Sexual harassment at the workplace is the violation of which of these articles?
a. Article 21
b. Article 12
c. Article 44
d. None of the above
4. Vishaka reinforces Internal Complaints Committee formation with predominantly ____________ being the Presiding officer.
a. Male members
b. Both male and female members
c. Female members
d. Head of the institution
5. Which of these is included in the definition of sexual harassment?
a. Physical contact or advances.
b. A demand or request for sexual favours.
c. Sexually coloured remarks
d. All of the above
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