The Church in India is in the midst of serious sexual allegations. In most of these cases, what has become conspicuously bare is also the absence of proper internal redressal systems, where complaints of sexual harassment could be filed initially and inquiries conducted. The establishment of Internal Complaints Committees as envisaged under the Sexual Harassment of Women at workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 is significant both legally and administratively.
This beneficial pro-woman legislation was born out of the guidelines of the Supreme Court in 1997 through the landmark judgment of Vishaka Vs State of Rajasthan . As per the Sexual Harassment of Women at workplace Act, it is mandatory for every institution, which has more than 10 employees, to have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to look into complaints of sexual harassment. If there are less than 10 employees, then the Act mandates the aggrieved to approach a Local Complaints Committee (LCC) formed in every District.
It is to be noted that registered Societies or Trusts, managed by individuals or private authorities are covered under the definition of workplace under section [2(o)ii] of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act. Hence, it is not only morally important for the Societies / Trusts / Institutions etc. to ensure safety and wellbeing of women but also statutory requirement to establish independent committees / mechanisms to address issues of workplace sexual harassment of women.
Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), established within an organisation to address instances of sexual harassment at workplace, should be presided over by a woman employed at senior level in the organisation and should include two members from the same organisation who are committed to the cause of women or having an experience in social work or legal knowledge. There has to be an external member from an NGO or association committed to the cause of women or is familiar with issues related to sexual harassment. The term of the ICC Members shall not exceed 3 years. However, they may be reappointed.
T he Act defines sexual harassment as any act or behaviour which may include any physical contact, advances, request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography, any other conduct whether physical, verbal or non- verbal. One point to be noted here is that these acts or behaviour must be unwelcome in nature.
Other acts amounting to sexual harassment may include preferential treatment in employment; threat of detrimental treatment in employment or threat upon employment status; interference in work creating a hostile environment, humiliating treatment affecting employee’s health or safety etc. All these acts may either be express or implied in nature.
Any aggrieved woman may make a complaint in writing either to the Internal Complaints Committee of the organisation or the Local Complaints Committee in the district. Although a complaint has to be made within a period of three months from the date of the incident, it may be extended if there were reasonable circumstances that prevented the aggrieved woman from filing the complaint within the stipulated time.
The ICC, on receipt of a complaint, may set up a venue for reconciling trivial offences between the aggrieved and the accused/respondent. The Internal Complaints Committee, having all the powers of a Civil Court, will complete the inquiry in a comprehensive manner within a period of 90 days and the inquiry report with recommendations will be handed over to the employer and the employer will take appropriate action accordingly. The Act also ensures that the victim is entitled for compensation in relevant cases. An aggrieved person can approach civil courts by way of an appeal against the decisions of ICC.
It is pertinent to note here that any sexual offence of serious nature has to be immediately reported to the local police as these offences cannot be reconciled. Any sexual offence under the purview of the Indian Penal Code shall be reported to and dealt by the police under the said Code. Any attempt at conciliation through coercion, force, fraud, or inducement etc. in such cases will be treated as cognisable offence.
It is also important to note that the identity of the victim has to be protected at every stage. Any breach of privacy of the victim by way of disclosing the name, circulating photograph, or any other matter that would affect the privacy of the victim is a punishable offence under the law.
In order to make sure that no innocent person is falsely implicated, the law also has provisions to deal with frivolous complaints or malicious prosecution by women. False complaints of sexual harassment are punishable offence under the Act. This balances the rights of both the victim and the accused.
It is a question as to why most of the institutions and societies are reluctant to implement such an effective redressal mechanism to tackle instances of sexual abuses. If the Sexual Harassment of Women at workplace Act is followed in its true letter and spirit, the aggrieved need not beg for justice nor need any innocent respondent be harassed unnecessarily.
It is significant for institutions and societies to be aware of the said Act and establish proper mechanisms for themselves as mandated by the law. Even though it is debatable as to whether religious places or residences under societies or trusts can be treated as workplace under the Workplace Sexual Harassment Act, it is however, highly advisable to have such internal mechanisms in place to ensure the safety of the victims and the institutions.
P roper awareness about the procedures and powers of the complaints committees and the various procedures under the Act might help the institutions secure safe working place for its employees and will go a long way in building goodwill for themselves. Much unwelcome public debates and mudslinging in the instances of allegations of sexual abuse could be avoided by following proper legal requirements when it comes to ensuring safety and justice for everyone working under various legal entities.
(The writer is an Advocate, Supreme Court of India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 22nd October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 43)