What came before #MeToo: Here’s how old cases of sexual harassment can be resolved

By Prarthana Mitra

If India’s #MeToo movement has proved anything, it is the various forms in which abuse manifests itself, especially in the workplace.

Acknowledging the varying degrees of sexual harassment reported by women professionals on social media, however, marks the first step in starting a conversation. And a necessary one too, considering the number of times the legal system has failed women seeking justice in the past. But for those who don’t believe in trial by media, or may want more comprehensive action against their abusers, that lifeline is still open.

Here are some of the options available to women seeking justice due process.

The POSH Act

Also know as the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act (2013), the POSH (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act replaced and plugged the loopholes in Vishaka guidelines, like shifting the onus on the employer to create a safe and inclusive workplace. As per the five-year-old law, every organisation (including educational institutes) is liable to form an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at each office or branch, comprising four or more employees. It should have female representation, including one senior woman employee and be presided by an external member belonging to an organisation dedicated to women’s safety.

The complainant, employee, freelancer or visitor, has three months to report to the ICC if he/she has been subjected to any act of sexual harassment, which lawyer Rutuja Shinde describes as “any sexually coloured remarks, unwelcome touch, lewd gestures or sounds made at a woman.” The law also covers harassment taking place during a lunch meeting at a restaurant or an office party.

An inquiry normally follows the complaint, and the organisation has to act upon its recommendations within two months. 

In addition to disciplinary action and compensation, victims are alos entitled to several forms of interim relief such as transfer to another workplace or a leave of up to three months.

What about old cases of sexual harassment?

After three months of the incident, as is the case of most #MeToo allegations, a criminal complaint can be filed against the harasser, regardless of whether you possess damning evidence. If a lot of time has elapsed, victims may file a private complaint before a magistrate, who can then direct the police to register an official FIR.

The array of accusations that have come to light since Tanushree Datta reminded the world of her harassment in 2008, only proves how inefficient the ICC or internal guilds/committees have been so far, and calls for a tightening of workplace sexual harassment laws. Firstly, most victims hesitate to report because they don’t want to get on the wrong side of these powerful men, who wield an influence over their careers. And if they do report, they are hardly ever believed.

But if legal action takes its course and is able to prove guilt, sexual harassment can land the perpetrator in jail for upto 7 years. Under the Indian Penal Code, inappropriately touching a woman calls for a punishment of 1-5 years’ jail with fine. The IT Act guarantees 1-7 years of imprisonment for observing, capturing, distributing images of a woman without her consent/knowledge. Using words, gestures to outrage a woman’s modesty carries a sentence of upto 3 years.


Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius