|HER WORLD||Sunday, September 30, 2001, Chandigarh, India|
Women & the law
From the grassroots
Women & the law
Claire (name changed) is a talented, successful senior advertisement manager. She decided to concentrate on her career and realised that in her case marriage was not going to work and if she had to make it to the top in her profession, she was better off being single. Like most career women, marriage became a second option to be taken much later in life. But like any other modern woman of today that did not mean she was going to live the life of a nun till her middle age. She had her boyfriends and an odd affair, when the attraction was strong. For some reason, her boss got carried away and formed an impression that this modern, single decisive woman could be easy game. Claire was good enough to explain to him and request him for a good working relationship. The rejection brought out the worst in her boss and his overtures became more lurid and were coupled with threats and actions at ruining her career.
Single or married, a woman has the right to make her own choices, and none of her choices portray her wish to be sexually harassed or abused. The hands of law protect us.
Under the Indian Penal Code, 1860
a) Section 354 gives two years’ imprisonment or fine or both to whoever is assaulting or using criminal force against any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty.
Section 509 gives simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or fine or both to whoever is uttering a word or making a gesture or act intending to insult the modesty of a woman.
The Constitution of India vests a lot of explanation and gives the fundamental rights and protection of human rights vide its various articles.
1) Articles 19 (1) g, 15, 14 and 21 Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, Section 2 (d). In sexual harassment of working women, the meaning of sexual harassment is:
Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexually-determined behaviour such as (a) physical contact and advances; (b) a demand or request for sexual favours; (c) sexually-coloured remarks; (d) showing pornography; (e) any unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
2) Constitution of India, Articles 19(1), (g), 15, 14, 21, 141 and 32 —Sexual harassment of working women violates fundamental rights of working women regarding their life and liberty, and their right to work carry out occupation, trade or business with dignity.
The judgement of the Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma, in the case Vishaka versus the State of Rajasthan is of great importance. The immediate cause for the filing of this writ petition was an incident of alleged brutal gang rape of a social worker in a village of Rajasthan. The judgement states, "This writ petition has been filed for the enforcement of the fundamental rights of working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India in view of the prevailing climate in which the violation of these rights is not uncommon."
With the increasing awareness and emphasis on gender justice, there is increase in the effort to guard against such violations; and the resentment towards incidents of sexual harassment is also increasing — the aim of focusing attention towards this societal aberration and assisting in finding suitable methods for realisation of the true concept of ‘gender equality;’ and to prevent sexual harassment of working women in all workplaces through judicial process, to fill the vacuum in existing legislation — such violations therefore, attract the remedy under Article 32 for the enforcement of these fundamental rights of women. — Apart from this article we may also refer to some other provisions which envisage judicial intervention for eradication of this social evil.
Some other provisions in the Constitution, in addition to the
above-mentioned Articles, that have relevance are:-
The guidelines and
norms prescribed herein are : It
is the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in
workplaces and other institutions to prevent or deter the
commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide
procedures for the settlement or prosecution of such acts —
the definition of sexual embarrassment being as given in the
Constitution under the before mentioned Articles. The complaint
mechanism should be adequate to provide a special counsellor or
a Complaints Committee headed by a woman, with half of its
members being women. Adequate initiative, awareness and help to be made available
to avoid all acts of harassment in order to preserve and enforce the
right to gender equality of working women. These
directions would be binding and enforceable in law until the
complete suitable legislation is enacted to occupy the field.
The guidelines and norms prescribed herein are :
It is the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in workplaces and other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide procedures for the settlement or prosecution of such acts — the definition of sexual embarrassment being as given in the Constitution under the before mentioned Articles. The complaint mechanism should be adequate to provide a special counsellor or a Complaints Committee headed by a woman, with half of its members being women.
Adequate initiative, awareness and help to be made available to avoid all acts of harassment in order to preserve and enforce the right to gender equality of working women.
These directions would be binding and enforceable in law until the complete suitable legislation is enacted to occupy the field.
a) Article 15 — Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth — The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on the basis of above mentioned prohibitions and nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provisions for women and children.
b) Article 42 — Provision for just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief.
c) Article 51 — Promotion of international peace and security — the states shall endeavour to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in the dealings of organised people with one and another.
d) Article 51A — Fundamental Duties. It shall be
the duty of every citizen of India to abide by the Constitution and
respect its ideals and institutions, — to promote harmony and the
spirit of common brotherhood — to renounce practices derogatory to
the dignity of women. In view of the above, and the absence of enacted
law to provide for the effective enforcement of the basic human right
of gender equality and guarantee against sexual harassment and abuse,
more particularly against sexual harassment at workplaces, the court
lays down the guidelines and norms specified herein for due observance
at all workplaces or other institutions, until a legislation is
enacted for the purpose. This is done in exercise of the power
available under Article 32 of the Constitution for enforcement
of the fundamental rights and it is further emphasised that this would
be treated as the law declared by this Court under Article 141 of
From the grassroots
In 1993, one of the most important steps for the empowerment of women and increasing their participation in decision-making was taken by reserving 33 per cent seats for women in panchayati raj institutions. This paved the way for the election of around one million women at village, block and district levels. By now most states (with a few exceptions like Bihar) have completed at least one five-year tenure. What has been the experience of around 7 to 8 lakh women during this first tenure? What lessons can be learnt for the future from this experience?
It is easy to point out numerous examples of women who have worked entirely according to what they were told by their husbands or other male members of their families. In some cases elected women remained at home while their husbands attended the panchayat meetings and carried out official transactions on their behalf. Some of these elected women were approached by men only when their signatures (or thumb impressions) were needed. All this is true to a substantial extent, but this is not the whole picture. In our male-dominated society it is easy to hear jokes about the subservient role of several elected women, and some fierce arguments based on this that reservations for women in panchayat raj bodies have failed. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to realise the greater potential created by these reservations, we should look at several other examples in which women got an opportunity to play an independent role. In such situations time and again we see them making remarkable achievements for development of their villages and quite often resisting the presence of vested interests with a lot of grit and determination.
The yearnings of several women to assert their independence and make a significant contribution to the welfare of people is visible in many such examples. In my cases they have been helped by voluntary organisations and people’s movements active in their region. In some cases enlightened family members, including husbands, have also encouraged them to realise their potential of initiating meaningful social change.
From such examples it is quite clear that when conducive conditions exist for women to play a leading and active role in the decision- making of a village, the entire village community benefits. This increased participation of women is often associated with better utilisation of financial resources, increased harmony in village and prioritisation of some important but neglected aspects of development such as girls’ education and sanitation. Social reform measures such as reduction in alcohol and domestic violence clearly get more prominence when women come to the forefront in rural communities.
Corruption has been one of the main problems of panchayat raj institutions. Interviews in several villages confirm that when women representatives function in an independent way, possibilities of corruption are lesser. Even if a pradhan or sarpanch is honest, there is the other threat that government officials refuse to release money and do not cooperate in other ways unless a certain commission is paid to them. There have been numerous examples of women sarpanches resisting these demands of officials. In fact, one hears such resistance from women more frequently than from men. This opposition to the demands for commission has been strongly voiced by several women pradhans at their open meetings and training programmes.
Pushpa Rana, pradhan of Atakfarm panchayat in Dehra Dun district, strongly resisted the bribe demands of officials. Although this created a lot of delays and other problems, she finally had her way. Sojar Bai of Ramtek Panchayat ( Harda district in Madhya Pradesh) went one step ahead and got the corrupt official (who demanded a cut from her) suspended from his job.
As for the careful use of scarce funds, Alka Chauhan provided a lesson to government engineers. A support wall had been built in her Nalapani village (district Dehra Dun) at a cost of Rs 42,000, but it collapsed. A junior government engineer estimated that it will cost Rs 45,000 to rebuild that wall. But Alka Chauhan mobilised the villagers to build the support wall at a cost of only Rs 23,500, and the money saved in this way could be spent on other development work.
When Suraiya Begum became the chairperson of Sultanpur Chilkana nagar panchayat, it was saddled with debts and even some of her supporters feared that new development work may be hindered by the need to first clear old debts. But she managed the situation in such a careful way that by the time she completed her five-year tenure, a record number of development works worth Rs 80 lakh had been completed.
As Rehana, a social activitist of Sultanpur says, "Women are known to use money very carefully at home, and somehow manage the family budget even when income is low. Women show the same abilities when they manage the village funds". Her colleague, Shaheen , adds, "When men are in-charge of development works, they indulge in a lot of wasteful spending in inaugurations and completion ceremonies. Women know how to be frugal and concentrate on the real work." Women representatives have shown the capacity for increasing panchayat’s income to make the development work more self-reliant. Many elected women have been closely involved with the promotion of self-help, groups in villages. Urmila Yadav, sarpanch from Kosli village (Haryana), first took a step to clear encroachment on panchayat land and then built some shops on it. The rent from these shops can provide a regular income to the panchayat.
Women are generally known to have a greater capacity for resolving disputes. When she was the chairperson, Suraiya Begum’s door always remained open for many victims of domestic violence. She helped to resolve many disputes. Pushpa Rana prevailed upon villagers to first settle all disputes locally and then go to the police only if village-level efforts failed. The result was that the money people had to spend on paying bribes to the police and middlemen was saved.
Many elected women representatives have made an effort to reduce liquor consumption and to remove liquor vends. In Gazidipur village of Sharanpur district a panchayat member Kamia confronted the pradhan who supported the location of a liquor shop in the village and successfully mobilised village women for the removal of this liquor shop. Veena Sajwan, who was elected block pradhan of Bhilangana block (Tehri Garhwal district) at the young age of 23, says, "I have taken up anti-liquor issue as the most important issue to mobilise women. When I had the opportunity to meet the Chief Minister, I immediately reminded him of his promise to curb the liquor menace." All over Uttaranchal state this has been an important issue for elected women and they raised it vociferously at a recent open-forum meeting in Almora.
It is hoped that greater participation of women will result in better implementation of water, sanitation, girls’ education, women’s health and maternity. Chandravati Singh made a detailed survey of where exactly handpumps were needed in her panchayat (Garchapa in Chitrakut district, UP) which is spread over a wide area. This led to maximising benefits from the limited budget at her disposal for drinking water schemes.
Some women elected members have prioritised toilets for women at bus stops, a clear need which had been ignored earlier by men pradhans. In Sirmaul panchayat of Indore district, the sarpanch Kiran Kanchal not only set up a maternity home but also set up a committee to run it on a viable basis without raising the service charges too high for villagers. Madhu Semval (Nathuvala panchayat, Dehra Dun district) helped to check the spread of a cholera epidemic. Natho Begum (pradhan of Enfield gram panchayat, Dehra Dun district) was so devoted to promoting the education of girls that she donated her own land for this purpose, even though she herself belongs to a poor family. Some women have overcome heavy odds to accomplish very commendable work in panchayats.
Sudha Patel (sarpanch of Changa village, Anand district of Gujarat) is blind, but her work done with the help of a friend has won widespread praise. Rajjo, a Dalit woman, is completely illiterate and comes from a very poor family. However, her work in Sultanpur Chilkana as deputy chairman was so good that almost the entire village adores her. Some women have resisted efforts of vested interests to harass and dislodge them with a lot of courage and firmness. So many efforts were made to dislodge Ramali Behn from Ahemdabad zila panchayat by powerful vested interests, but she survived them all by her transparent way of functioning and by establishing a direct relationship with people. When efforts were made to implicate Savita Behan Bharat Singh Pasaya (sarpanch of Pandra, Dohod district, Gujarat) and her family members in false allegations, she proved her innocence before a large gathering of villagers and officials. When women succeed in overcoming heavy odds to achieve good results in panchayats and also face vested interests with courage, it has an exemplary impact on a large number of other women.
want to come forward to participate more actively in village affairs
and contribute to the welfare of the village community. Apart from
this, it is also quite evident from these examples given above that
the more active role of women in village often contributes to the
welfare of the entire community and several important areas which were
neglected earlier now get prioritised. Thus it is in the interests of
not just women but the entire village community to encourage the
further empowerment of women in village affairs. The 33 per cent
reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions is an important
part of this empowerment. To further strengthen the efforts of
elected-women representatives the government should provide greater
security to women from the anger of powerful vested interests who try
to harm and harass them in various ways. Voluntary organisations
should also play a crucial role in helping and training elected women