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India passes law to stop sexual harassment at work

NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - Millions of India’s working women will now be protected from sexual harassment thanks to the passing of a bill aimed at tackling unwelcome behaviour such as sexual advances, requests for sexual favours and sexual innuendos made at work.

Sheetal, 23, who works at a night call centre, poses for a photograph in her office in New Delhi January 12, 2013. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, passed by the upper house of parliament on Tuesday, aims to ensure a safe environment for women working in both the public and private sectors.

“Sexual harassment at workplace is a violation of women’s right to gender equality, life and liberty. It creates an insecure and hostile work environment, which discourages women’s participation in work, thereby adversely affecting their economic empowerment and the goal of inclusive growth,” the ministry of women and child development said in a statement.

“The increasing work participation rate of women has made it imperative that comprehensive legislation focusing on prevention of sexual harassment as well as providing a redressal mechanism be enacted.”

Women’s groups welcomed the law but said there was a need to ensure it was implemented and enforced.

Although India’s economic liberalisation, which began more than two decades ago, brought with it more progressive Western ideas of gender equality, women continue to face a barrage of threats based on traditional patriarchal beliefs.

Every day newspapers report cases of women being pulled off the streets and gang-raped in moving cars or molested on public transport, and brides killed by their in-laws for not fulfilling dowry demands.

While many women working in offices or private residences as maids complain of sexual harassment by colleagues, managers or employers, there has been no real mechanism to deal with complaints or ensure that employers are held accountable.

Under the new law -- which also covers students in schools and colleges, patients in hospitals, maids in private residences and agricultural labourers -- employers have to set up grievance committees to investigate all complaints.

Employers who fail to comply will be fined up to 50,000 rupees. Repeated violations may lead to higher penalties and cancellation of licence or registration to conduct business.

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