Sexual harassment bill: need for a gender-neutral law

November 23, 2012

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

India took 50 years to come up with a definition for what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, courtesy of a Supreme Court judgement 12 years ago.

It makes you wonder where parliament has been, considering that there is no law to deal with the offense.

This may change soon. The Lok Sabha in September 2012 passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill. If approved by the Rajya Sabha, the law would give women a way to seek help from the government when confronted with predatory practices at work.

But here’s the funny part: the bill takes for granted that all potential offenders are men. That’s understandable, considering that sexual harassment usually begins with a man and is aimed at a woman. While the empirical evidence of sexual harassment against men may not be prominently reported and thus hard to ascertain, it does not mean that men cannot be victimised by other men or women at work.

Many countries including Denmark, Australia and Switzerland have sexual harassment laws that are applicable to males and females alike. One could argue that the socio-economic milieu in India is different from the West, but we must not forget that the patriarchal nature of society in the country also stereotypes men as perpetual aggressors.

Nevertheless, this topic could come up more often as more Indian businesses style themselves after the kinds of workplaces and workplace environments that their executives have learned about elsewhere in Asia, Europe and the western hemisphere. Sexual harrasment is a well known problem in many modern, white-collar workplaces, and there is no reason to expect that it won’t crop up more in the future.

Men facing harassment may be afraid to report it for fear of being mocked — particularly in India where, like it or not, a man is supposed to be a MAN. A gender-neutral anti-harassment law could help them.

The introduction of a law against harassment would be a milestone in the Indian legal system, one that the Ministry of Women and Child Development should not be in a hurry to achieve. A constructive dialogue with the civil society, legal experts and both men and women’s rights groups may help carve a bill that may pave the way for a society in which people better understand the challenges that both genders face.

It might even help make India a better place to live for everyone.

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