Historical perspectives on the anti-sexual harassment law

Legal reforms have come about through momentous personal stories, historical movements, civil society upraise compelling lawmakers to bring legal reforms in this country. When spate of violence on women has increased, stirring the conscience of the nation, who are otherwise numb to such news-items lost in the folds of newsprint, then there is hope.

What could have been yet another lost news item did not. The brutal rape and assault on the young 23-year-old female intern, Nirbhaya – the fearless on the night of 16th December 2012, shook the very core of the country’s consciousness. This saw protests in the country and against states, for not doing enough to keep women safe. The protests compelled the government to set up a judicial committee, headed by Justice Verma, to study and consult with civil society on ways to amend laws that were archaic, bottlenecks in the investigation and prosecution of sex offenders.

The Justice Verma Committee report spoke for the need for police, electoral and above all education and perception reforms, including Criminal Law amendments, Amendments to the Representation of People Act, 1951.

In a daring observation, it critiqued the then Sexual Harassment Bill, 2012, where it stated: “We notice from the provisions of the Bill that Section 14 appears to penalise a woman for filing a false complaint. We think that such a provision is a completely abusive provision and is intended to nullify the objective of the law.”

Furthermore, it recommended that the internal committee be given the powers of a civil court: “the internal complaints committee to be given powers of a civil court for summoning discovery and production of documents is concerned, this amounts to colourable legislation because powers of courts cannot be simply conferred upon domestic committees, particularly when the composition of the internal committee does not have any legal background.”

Today, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace, Act 2013 is based on the Supreme Court guidelines in the case of Vishakha v State of Rajasthan (1997)

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