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The fate of the much- awaited Bill on sexual harassment hangs fire.

Femail magazine finds out why there is no denying that women- related legislations are the last priority of the political class. Thirteen years in the making, the much awaited Bill on sexual harassment is under the scanner for its loopholes.

Mail Today talks to lawyers, victims and women’s groups about the fate of the Bill and the debate surrounding it.

Prakriti Srivastava, DIG, wildlife, ministry of environment and forests, knows how tough it is to fight a case of sexual harassment especially if it’s against a minister. In 1999, as a divisional forest officer, she was sexually harassed by Kerala’s forest minister Neelalohitadasan Nadar. Though the minister got a year’s term of imprisonment, it took a five- year- long legal battle to get justice. Recollecting the struggle, Srivastava says it was very difficult even to get the complaint filed and a bigger challenge to get a high court judge hear her case.

“ There was no system of a committee to hear the complaint and I had to get a Supreme Court order for every step I took. I did all this braving threats from politicians which happened on a daily basis,” says Srivastava. She says that the proposed law on sexual harassment at workplace will be a powerful weapon and act at least as a deterrent.

The Bill mandates that a person found guilty of sexual harassment will face financial penalties besides loss of employment and in case of a graver offence — a police complaint. Though many feel the Bill is a step in the right direction, activists feel grey areas need to be addressed. Vani Subramanian of Saheli, a women’s group, feels any legislation related to women faces resistance.

“ There is a fundamental resistance to women related laws. It’s become common parlance to talk about its misuse first rather than its benefits,” says Subramanian, who was actively involved in drafting the Bill. However, she feels the Bill in its current form is unacceptable because of some of the shocking clauses in it.

“ The Bill says a woman will be punished if she cannot provide adequate proof of her allegations. This is worrisome,” she says. Subramanian says such a provision will make it difficult for women seeking justice. “ Sexual harassment is all about unequal power distribution, and putting the onus on women to prove her case acts as a threat,” she adds.

Many feel that the exclusion of the unorganised sector, which employs 91 per cent of Indian women, from the Bill’s purview will defeat the intent of any legislation. “ It’s ridiculous to exclude the unorganised sector and outrageous to put the onus on women to prove she was sexually harassed.

It makes women more vulnerable and creates a hostile atmosphere at the workplace. It will have serious consequences on a woman’s career. It is also against the 1997 Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment,” says Supreme Court lawyer and AIDWA legal convener Kirti Singh. Advertising executive Lina Bhargav ( name changed), agrees.

Unable to deal with her boss’ advances two years back, she had quit her job. “ How could I have proved he made sexually coloured remarks and tried to touch me? I never complained against him because he was a big shot and I was sure the management wouldn’t take action against him,” says Bhargav.

Under the Bill, employers are expected to set up a complaints committee, which consists of senior officials, preferably with experience in social work, legal knowledge or committed to the cause of women, besides a member from an NGO. However, women’s right lawyer Flavia Agnes is quite sceptical about such internal committees.

“ What happens if the accused is some big- wig, such as an MD? Is he the one who will set up the inquiry committee? You can never expect such a panel to talk against him,” says Agnes, who was associated in drafting the Bill. Nandita Shah of Akshara, an NGO, feels the concerns have to be addressed and a process put in place before the Bill becomes law. “ It’s not going to be a cakewalk. Instead of making the workplace safer for women, it should not put hurdles in her way,” says Shah, who helped in drafting the current bill. She adds that women’s groups are meeting on Saturday to chalk out further strategies.

However, Ammu Abraham of Women’s Centre, Mumbai, is pinning her hopes on women MPs for redressal. “ The government shouldn’t have kept the Bill under wraps and moved it in Parliament without consulting women's groups,” says Abraham.

CPM Politburo member Brinda Karat seems to be already on the case. “ We have serious reservations with two controversial clauses in the Bill. We will make sure that in the next Parliament session, the Bill will be taken up. Then it will go to a standing committee which will address the grievances. Based on that, the standing committee will send a report to the Cabinet,” says Karat. However, one does wonder how much politicking will happen before the Bill actually becomes a law.