“Many religious institutions are incorporated under a trust or a society. They should establish Committees to look into matters of sexual harassment,” said advocate Amba Salelkar.

Explained Workplace sexual harassment law is applicable to religious organisations
news Sexual Harassment Tuesday, July 30, 2019 - 16:31

On July 22, the Supreme Court junked a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by a Delhi-based lawyer, who sought to extend Vishaka Guidelines for cases of sexual harassment to religious institutions. With cases of sexual harassment emerging from several religious institutions across all religions, the dismissal of the PIL raised the question over whether these organisations were exempt from putting in place measures to prevent and redress abuse. TNM reached out to several experts on the issue, who pointed out that since the PIL was about the Vishaka Guidelines and not the law that overrides it, institutions will still have to set up redressal committees and conduct trainings.

“Vishaka Guidelines are not as comprehensive as the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013,” pointed out Amba Salelkar, lawyer and co-founder of Paarvai Advisors that offers services to organisations for enabling a safe, inclusive and resilient environment. The Vishaka Guidelines were laid down in 1997 by the Supreme Court, and for the first time, it was spelled out that the safety of women at the workplace was the employer’s responsibility. They outlined the procedure to be followed in cases of sexual harassment of women at the workplace, including the definition of sexual harassment. The SC had also asked the Union government to set up a law to this effect – which the government did in 2013. And this legislation supersedes the Vishaka Guidelines.

While Vishaka Guidelines refer only to government, public sector and private enterprises, the 2013 Act – henceforth, the POSH Act – encompasses a range of institutions and organisations, including a society, trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), a sports stadium, a dwelling place or house, hospital or nursing home, workplaces for those in the unorganised sector and even the place visited by an employee.

“Any place that employs more than 10 people falls under the Act. Many religious institutions are incorporated under a trust or a society recognised by the government or a private entity. Hence, the regulatory authority of religious institutions should take it upon themselves to establish an Internal Committee (IC) to look into matters of sexual harassment of its female employees, as mandated by the Act,” said Amba.

The PIL mentioning Vishaka Guidelines is ill-conceived, but it does not discount the fact that religious organisations need to follow POSH Act, she added.

Why ICs are important in religious institutions

Although the POSH Act was put in place in 2013, numerous organisations are yet to constitute an IC. And within religious institutions, many employees and volunteers are either clueless about the Act, or do not know the specifics of the law.

TNM spoke to Sister Lucy, a nun in Kerala who faced several challenges after she extended support to the survivor nun in the Bishop Franco rape case. She was relieved when she was told about the existence of POSH Act, as she was unaware of the law until then.

“At convents, nuns who are in their novitiate continue to be taught about sex, marriage, and family life, but nothing on sexual harassment and how to respond to such incidents. We are not even encouraged to inform a person in authority of the harassment,” she said. 

Some Christian institutions have certain religious laws dealing with sexual harassment within a parish or church, although not exclusively for the women working in these places.

Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council (KCBC), for example, has established guidelines for Safe Environment Programme for Church Personnel connected with institutions. These guidelines deal specifically with “minors or vulnerable adults” who are part of the church, with a passing mention about the staff: “Church Personnel shall not engage in physical, mental, psychological, written or verbal harassment of staff, volunteers or parishioners and shall not tolerate such harassment by other Church Personnel.”

Some Islamic organisations have internal committees, but to deal with issues pertaining to family matters, land dealings and other legal cases. “There are no committees to address the atrocities against women,” said a member of a women’s group under an Islamic organisation in Karnataka.

The woman, who did not wish to be named, said there are organisations that only impose dress codes such as hijab and abaya on women who work under a male member. Her organisation offers counselling to women employees who face any form of harassment from male colleagues.

“There is no IC as per the POSH Act. But when a woman colleague approaches us with a complaint, we hear her out and assure any assistance she needs, including filing a complaint if she wants to. We also tell women in all organisations to not be silent. Although we confront the perpetrator and issue a warning, many a time, it fails to make an impact,” she said.

On the condition of anonymity, a woman who was a disciple at a Hindu ashram told TNM that there were no proper mechanisms to address matters of sexual harassment. “It was an ad-hoc arrangement,” she said.

“If a woman worker faced any problem, she could inform somebody in the hierarchy, which is not strongly defined. The situation becomes murkier if the woman is a volunteer, who does not fall into the standard category of domestic worker or employee,” she said.

Herself a victim of sexual harassment at the ashram, she said many women abandoned their work when they hit a roadblock. “We were often told that some women were sent away or left the ashram because they did terrible things. When I left the ashram, I realised that those women, too, faced sexual harassment like me. They left quietly, as there are no guidelines, practices and procedures that they can follow in such religious places.”

Examples institutions could look to

The Archdiocese of Bengaluru, which runs schools, hospitals and other institutions, formed an IC under the POSH Act in May 2019. “The Committee consists of four laypersons. The Archbishop ensured that priests and religious figures are excluded from this committee, so that complaints are reviewed in an unbiased manner,” said JA Kantharaj, PRO of the Archdiocese.

“Such committees will help gain the confidence of the employees of various institutions under the Archdiocese, the parishioners and people outside as well,” he added. 

Like how children, these days, are aware of the childline helpline (1098) due to extensive awareness, religious organisations should not restrict such complaints to confessions, said Sister Lucy. “Every religious institution must have such a group (ICs) that is critical of any act of crime against women employees. Only then would women come forward to talk about their harrowing experiences. It will also serve as an example and awareness to the next set of women joining such religious places,” she said.

Read: Why workplace sexual harassment is about power

Explainer: What is sexual harassment, and how you can avoid sexually harassing someone

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