NEW DELHI: Despite women taking to the social media to talk about sexual harassment faced at the workplace which has compelled a number of prominent individuals, including politicians and journalists, to step down from their positions, the present law is not strong enough to tackle the emerging #MeToo cases, National Commission for Women (NCW) Chairperson Rekha Sharma has said.
"The existing Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act is not proper (adequate). Unless the law changes we won't be able to do much," Sharma told IANS in an interview.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act came into force in 2013. Under the Act, all employers are required to constitute an Internal Compliant Committee (ICC) at the workplace by an order in writing. However, the provision for a complaints mechanism has existed since 1997 under what are known as the Vishakha Guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court. These were made more stringent after the brutal rape and murder of a young physiotherapist in 2012, a crime that shook the nation and has come to be known as the Nirbhaya case.
Following the huge number of posts that cascaded from different social media sites, Women and Child Development (WCD) Minister Maneka Gandhi asked the NCW to expeditiously probe all complaints of sexual harassment received under the #MeToo movement.
Meanwhile, the NCW also created a dedicated email ID, firstname.lastname@example.org, through which the victims could directly approach the ministry.
In the two weeks since the ID was created, 14 women have approached the NCW with complaints. They include writer-director Vinta Nanda and journalist Sandhya Menon, who openly came out on social media about the harassment they faced.
However, the Commission chief admitted that compared to the outrage on the social media, the number of cases registered so far is low.
In many of the cases that surfaced during the movement, there is a considerable time gap between the occurrence of the alleged sexual harassment and its being reported, which makes it difficult to prosecute these under the Act.
"Many women are aware that their complaint won't take a legal shape because of the time period. By now, the whole thing (situation) might have changed, the office might have changed, the boss might have changed. The person herself may not be in that same office," Sharma pointed out.
Some of the allegations under the MeToo campaign are not from same workplace, while the Act only permits a complainant to approach ICC against an existing employee.
In such a situation, the complainant needs to follow the legal procedures as has happened in many MeToo cases.
"Women who think they were harassed or continue to be harassed are cases on which we can work on and get them relief. They must come up and talk to us," Sharma added.
As for the 14 cases received by the Commission, the NCW chief said legal action had been initiated in many of them.
"It all depends on the reply from the police, their investigations and when they register an FIR. We will be after them, our counselors will be in touch with the police. Because, in the end, we are not the one who will take these forward, the police will. It depends upon how much time they take," she noted.
Considering the inadequacies of the present act, Sharma said the NCW is working on bringing amendments to it and will hold a review meeting with the stakeholders next month.
"We will be giving our suggestions to the government, to the new Group of Ministers (GoM) that has been constituted (for the purpose). We will be giving our suggestions and they will review it and hopefully amendments will come. That is up to them," she explained.
When asked about the impact of the MeToo movement, Sharma stated that the NCW has been receiving complaints ever since the Act was brought into force.
"MeToo is just a way of writing in the social media. It does not mean sexual harassment cases were not happening before or will stop after the campaign. This is just a campaign where women are coming out and talking and many people are supporting them on social media. But that does not mean those who are not saying MeToo are not harassed," she pointed out.