A Dozen Years After Vishakha, have things changed on ground
by Shrutee K/DNS
On 25 June 1993, the Government of India (GoI) ratified the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), which included “The right to work as an inalienable right of all human beings” and “The right to protection of health and to safety in working conditions, including the safeguarding of the function of reproduction”, albeit with certain reservations. However, on ground, nothing changed. Women were harassed and few organisations took the matter seriously.
Four years later, in Vishakha & Ors vs State of Rajasthan, a heartfelt plea by several NGOs prompted the Supreme Court to lay down guidelines “for the preservation and enforcement of the right to gender equality of the working women, until suitable legislation was passed.” For some women, in some organisations, things started to look up. However, the Supreme Court could not lay down the law to penalise the continuing offences. Redressal took more time.
Finally, six years ago, on 09 December 2013, the GoI converted the guidelines into law, by gazetting The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The Act puts the onus on the employer to prevent sexual harassment of women at the workplace, prescribes procedures for how such complaints are to be taken up, investigated and disposed of, and specifies the punishment for offences under the Act.
Unfortunately, for the most, employers have proceeded to either ignore it or attempt to circumvent this, along with other Acts that they are obliged to follow. “Women,” insists an employer who used to run a 50-person enterprise, “are too difficult to handle. One complaint, and I may have to take action against a good employee.” His “solution” was to fire all the women and hire only men, good by default in his way of thinking. That his enterprise may be rated a poor place by all workers because some people can get away with harassment did not enter his mind. That men, too, may find such a workplace to be disrespectful or undignified is beyond his comprehension. This is not an imaginary person. Moreover, most working professionals, both male and female, are not even aware that what is going on is sexual harassment.
Recognising that ignorance about sexual harassment is widespread, the Act itself prescribes awareness. Among the ten duties of employers is the obligation to publicise the provisions of the act. Section 19(c) of the Act reads: “Every employer shall organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals for sensitising the employees with the provisions of the Act and orientation programmes for the members of the Internal Committee in the manner as may be prescribed.”
Large companies with international images to maintain, small and medium enterprises determined to do the right thing, and startups with millennials as founders have proceeded to put awareness of POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) on their training calendars. However, many still treat this as a one-off activity and the part about ‘regular intervals’ gets cursory attention.
And yet, this is a subject full of minefields. Sex itself has such a taboo around it that sexual harassment is also treated as an embarrassing subject, and handouts and classroom lectures make little dent in the matter. Well known names like Tehelka and Air India have had their names dragged through the mud because they did not train their employees in the three Rs: to recognise, refuse and get redresssal for harassment. It is in their response that such organisations show their true mettle.
While Tehelka attempted to sweep alleged rape under the carpet, Air India’s CMD Ashwani Lohani did exactly the opposite. He roped in Be.artsy, a premier social enterprise in social awareness programs for extensive re-training of its Internal Committee (IC).
What makes this approach different from the business-as-usual approach is the results. Air India picked an enterprise that has been training employees over the country on sexual harassment even before the 2013 Act. Founded by Shikha Mittal in 2010 to raise awareness on social issues, Be.artsy uses unique art-based interventions to create high-impact training that simplifies the subject and makes it accessible to anyone, from coffee plantation workers in Tata Coffee, to blue collar employees in Pepsico, to corporate office staff in American Express. The customised program “Mind Bugs” for Pepsico won an internal award in 2014 and a short video on YouTube shows stunning impact. “IT’S NOT OK” is Be.artsy’s flagship program, which has run in six companies since 2017, including Giesecke+Devrient, BT, MediaTek, and Tata Coffee. Covering over 25,000 employees in nearly 30 cities and 9 languages, the program has been hailed by excited HR heads and employees alike.
Says PepsiCo’s former Associate Director – OMD PepsiCo India Region, Pavitra Singh: “A street theatre by nature is a very interactive format and what that did for us is that it helped open up minds. We had men and women equally talking about how they felt and what they experienced.”
“We do not take any sexual harassment case lightly. Which is why I personally attended the recent IC training programme conducted by Be.artsy,” says Lohani, whose no-nonsense approach is a refreshing change from that of many CEOs, who treat the 2013 Act as another HR burden, and not something for the Board to focus on, a mistake that Tehelka probably rues to this day.
Today, handouts and classroom lectures are passe. Instead, you have new, engaging and interactive programs. Be.artsy’s programs, for example, consist of a mix of high-impact nukkad nataks, facilitated and interactive workshops in local languages. These result in greatly increased awareness of the issue, the avenues for redressal, and most importantly, the knowledge and confidence among thousands of men and women that this is a social evil whose time has finally come to a deserved end.
Says Mittal, “While Be.artsy does awareness programs ranging from financial literacy to road safety, programs on preventing sexual harassment are closest to my heart.” Her eyes darken in memory as she adds, almost as a throwaway line, “I had to leave multiple jobs because of sexual harassment, and I’ve vowed that I shall do my utmost to ensure that no other woman ever has to do so, if I can help it.”
That’s a line that resonates with thousands of women all over the country, as the testimonials pour in from participants in Be.artsy’s programs that, for a change, address both the spirit as well as the letter of the law.
A dozen years after Vishakha, and a half-dozen years after the 2013 Act, it seems India Inc is finally getting its act together.