Lack of awareness, poor implementation: Why PoSH Act fails to protect Kerala women

Though the PoSH Act, which came into force in 2013, is not being effectively implemented yet, it has become a tool to bring gender discussions to the workplace.
Stylized image of a small group of women, in different attires like saree and salwar, on a beach looking to the sea
Stylized image of a small group of women, in different attires like saree and salwar, on a beach looking to the sea
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The Kerala government had in 2019 entrusted the Kerala State Women’s Development Corporation Limited (KSWDC) to study the awareness among employees regarding the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 – commonly referred to as the PoSH Act – and the functioning of Internal Committees (ICs) constituted under the Act at workplaces in the state.

Dr Anishia Jayadev, the KSWDC-appointed officer who conducted the study, found that several government departments don’t even have ICs and in places where ICs exist, proper protocol is not followed. This, despite the Act having been in force for eight years.

However, this is the case in various industries and spheres of work, even apart from government departments. Women whom the PoSH Act aims to protect find themselves further disadvantaged due to lack of awareness about the law, and socially entrenched patriarchy and misogyny which are amplified when provisions under the Act are inadequately implemented.

Take for instance this case from November 2019, when M Radhakrishnan, former Secretary of the Thiruvananthapuram Press Club, barged into the house of a woman colleague and beat up a male colleague in front of her and her kids in an act of moral policing. The woman is also a member of the Press Club.

Apart from lodging a police complaint, the woman also filed a harassment complaint at the Press Club, as it came under the purview of her workplace. The complaint would have to be dealt with by the IC. However, a temporary committee had to be formed to examine her complaint as there was no permanent IC at the Press Club, a mighty establishment that has over 500 journalists working in different media organisations.

Radhakrishnan is back at his post in the Press Club on the claims of a court order, while the charge sheet has been submitted in the court on the police case filed by the woman. Her fight is still ongoing while the accused continues as head of the institution. To make things harder for her, the accused has supporters who have allegedly been attempting to silence her and her supporters.

“This is the same everywhere. When a woman complains about harassment, all those who support the harasser soon unite and turn against her. They begin to corner the woman and start bad-mouthing her so that it hits her morale. They do everything to ensure that the woman is under pressure to withdraw her complaint. She’d have to live with the pressure till she gets justice, which, in some cases, never happens. It affects her career, her transfer and even promotion, because the men’s group has huge influence,” Neelima*, a government employee based in Thiruvananthapuram, told TNM.

Neelima said that in such cases, it should be ensured that women get mental support and are not left alone so that they can fight till they get justice.

“Yes, filing a complaint is just the beginning of a fight. One has to ensure that one is not drained out or exhausted to keep the fight going,” Suvarna*, a freelance journalist based out of Thiruvananthapuram, told TNM. Suvarna is among the women who backed the complainant against Radhakrishnan.

“Let us remember Bhanwari Devi, who, though she lost the case in court, finally made legislation on sexual harassment possible,” Survana added.

The origins of the Act and its crux

In September 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a social worker from Rajasthan belonging to the oppressed caste, was allegedly gang raped by dominant caste men of her village. The men were allegedly angered by her efforts to prevent a nine-month-old girl’s wedding in their family. In November 1995, all the accused were acquitted of rape, a judgement that caused outrage within and outside India.

While Bhanwari had been working as a saathin in the state government’s Women’s Development Programme (WDP) since 1985, the Rajasthan government refused to help her saying they were not responsible as she was raped in the fields. This prompted a group of activists to file a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Supreme Court demanding safety for women in their workplace. The PIL also sought that the employer take responsibility to protect women employees at every step. In 1997, the SC came out with the Vishaka Guidelines, laying down norms to protect women from sexual harassment at workplaces, which was superseded by the PoSH Act in 2013.

The Act provides protection for women against sexual harassment at the workplace, and implements prevention and redressal of sexual harassment complaints and matters connected therewith or incidental thereto. The IC is the most important part of the legislation, as it helps in the execution of the Act.

Under the Act, an employer is required to set up a grievance redressal mechanism called the Internal Committee at each office, branch or unit of an organisation that has 10 or more employees. The committee is institutionalised to hear complaints and grievances in the event of any incidents of sexual harassment. The Act is applicable to both the organised and unorganised sectors.

The law also stipulates that every district officer shall constitute a Local Committee (LC) to receive complaints of sexual harassment from establishments where the IC has not been constituted due to having less than 10 workers or if the complaint is against the employer itself.

Lack of awareness among women

Thiruvananthapuram-based advocate J Sandhya, who works mostly on women and children related issues, believes that the implementation of the Act is weak due to lack of awareness even among educated working women.

“The awareness is very, very less. And this keeps women from demanding a proper system to get justice under the Act. It’s been more than seven years since the PoSH Act was implemented but it hasn’t been implemented in its true spirit. Even now when a woman faces any kind of harassment, her first resort is the State Women’s Commission,” said Sandhya, who was the chairperson of the LC in Thiruvananthapuram under the Act and had quit a year ago.

Anishia, who is a nodal officer for gender at the Institute of Management and Technology (IMG) in Thiruvananthapuram, agrees.

“One of the biggest obstacles that stands in the way of effective implementation of the Act is that working women are not legally literate. They either don’t know that there is an Act that can help them or are not that familiar with its procedures,” she said. “Even if a department or a private firm has an IC or a Local Committee, they don’t communicate or educate employees or the committee members about its functions or the procedures to be followed while receiving a complaint.”

“Even if there is awareness, most women don’t come forward to lodge a complaint because there is no proper system in place. It’s up to the employers to set up the system,” Sandhya added.

This is particularly a hindrance for those who work in the unorganised sector. “What if a woman vendor in a market faces harassment, where would she file a complaint when the LC doesn’t even have an office? The District Collector is the grievance redressal authority of an LC, but there is no visibility that the machinery is in place, no infrastructure for it to function in,” Sandhya explained.

Both Sandhya and Neelima are of the view that committee members should be sensible and authoritative persons so as to ensure justice for the complainant.

“Committee members should be pro-women and able to take a strong stand, otherwise they can’t deliver a just result. In some ICs, the members get influenced or pressurised by the accused or those who back them,” Neelima said.

Men too are in the dark

While there is lack of awareness among women, most men are clueless about the Act.

“Men are totally unaware as they believe that this is something that matters only to women. However, the law is a tool to bring discussions about gender to the workplace. It can have a positive impact similar to how we could discuss violence at home through the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Likewise, we can also talk about gender at the workplace by conducting sessions on the Act,” Sandhya said.

However, sessions on gender awareness and related Acts are conducted by women with women participants.

“There is also a notion that only extreme forms of sexual harassment need to be reported. Some instances of sexual harassment are so grave that legal action can be initiated, which could attract one to three years of imprisonment. But these are not looked at as grave offenses, and lewd comments and sexually coloured remarks are mostly dismissed,” Sandhya said.

Lack of trust

Prasanthi PS, an IT professional working at Thiruvananthapuram’s Technopark said that apart from lack of awareness, it’s the lack of trust that stops women from lodging a complaint.

“There is a lack of awareness among women at the entry level compared to those at the lead and managerial levels. But if there is a lack of trust in one’s immediate boss, women might hesitate to complain to an IC as the complaint would also be sent to the boss to get the other person’s version. This could be because of lack of trust in their supervisor or because of lack of proper awareness about the functioning of the IC,” Prasanthi told TNM.

She added that all the major reputed firms at Technopark have properly set up ICs. “But a woman employee at the entry level may not pay much attention to details about ICs because only experience makes one aware of how relevant such committees are,” Prasanthi added.

ICs in the film industry

The Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) was formed by a group of female actors from the Malayalam film industry after the assault of a female actor by a male colleague in 2017. WCC has insisted that A.M.M.A (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists) should have an IC, but now the debate is about having ICs at each production unit.

“It has been planned to recommend to the government that forming of IC should be made mandatory while registering the name of a movie and the existence of the IC should be specified while call sheets are given to the cast and crew,” said Sandhya, who has been guiding the WCC legally to form ICs in the film industry.

Media and ICs

Deepthi*, another journalist based out of Thiruvananthapuram, told TNM that a woman will file a complaint only if her team leader is gender sensitive. “If you ask whether those who head newsrooms are gender sensitive, the answer is ‘no’, except in very few cases. After the MeToo movement, ICs have been formed in almost all media houses. But most women journos don’t know whom to complain to or what is the mail ID to send a complaint. This is an indicator of where we still stand,” Deepthi said.

Deepthi used to work at a prominent media house earlier. “I testify that in that organisation, a complaint to the IC was handled in a very professional manner. But in most other media firms, ICs are formed in name only,” she said.

This is echoed by another woman journalist who was subjected to harassment. “Yes, I knew that there is an Act and there is a committee, but I had no clue who headed it in my office and what the constitution was,” she told TNM.

“More funds should be allocated for LCs as it helps mostly those who work in the unorganised sector. And constant, rigorous sensitising is needed in general,” Sandhya said.

*Names changed

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