Sexual Harassment at Cyber workplace- Just a click away

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This article is written by Mansi Vyas from UFYLC, UOR, Rajasthan and curated by Rajrishi Ramaswamy from Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad

A father goes to pick up his son from school and on their way back home they meet with a car accident. The father and son are severely injured and are rushed to the nearest hospital. On his arrival, the surgeon looks at him and says “I cannot operate on him, he is my son!”

Few of you must be wondering how is that possible. Well, the surgeon was the mother of course! 

There was a time when no one guessed it right because specific roles were prescribed to all the genders and being a surgeon was not at all in the women’s department. But now the scenario is different, women have entered all fields and are doing exceptionally great jobs. On the surface it might look like they have all the freedom in the world and are enjoying every bit of it but when we zoom-in a bit we get to see how poorly they are treated in their workplace!

Long gone are the days when families didn’t allow their daughters to go out and work, now are the days when women themselves are afraid of stepping out of home. Many of them choose to work-from-home with the belief that the problem is solved. Until this pandemic we believed it too, but now we realize that even homes are not safe places because of technology. 

Nobody can deny the fact that technology has made things easily accessible. Everything is just a click away, be it grocery, food, clothes, electronics, and now offices, with which come sexual harassers. These are the same men who incessantly troubled women at office and poor women thought that work-from-home would bring some peace. Turns out it is not even near to being peaceful, in fact it is the exact opposite. Work-for-home has strengthened men, ambiguous laws have blinded them with the belief that it is harmful to assault women online. Here are the laws and a reasoned slap over those faces which think that they can do whatever they like and do away with it:

  1. The Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) Act 2013 has been enacted to ensure protection and prevention of sexual assaults against women at work. It also provides them effective redressal of complaints of sexual assaults.

Workplace definition not only includes traditional offices but also “any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment in” and “a dwelling place or a house.” The term “any place” in the above context can include literally any place from which the person is working. And the term “dwelling place or a house” is not lucid and was probably meant to point out to the domestic workers, we can interpret it for our own good. This term can be deduced to the idea of work-for-home conditions. Therefore, homes from which one works come under the ambit of “workplace”.

Under the definition of sexual harassment, every point except “physical contact and advances” and “unwelcome physical conduct of sexual nature” has the potential to be considered as sexual harassment at cyber workplace. It includes, demand or request for sexual favours; making sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography or any other unwelcome verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. The fact that these demands, remarks, or conducts are made online does not immune them from being called sexually harassing acts.

Definition of aggrieved women also include women who are not employed but are somehow the victims of sexual harassment by the respondent. This also immunes all the other women who might happen to be a part of work conferences by accident. 

  1. Section 67A of Information Technology Act 2000 says any person who publishes or transmits in electronic form any material containing sexually explicit act or conduct shall be punished.
  2. The following sections of Indian Penal Code can be used for redressal:
  •  354-A (Sexual harassment by a man)
  • 354-B (Assault or use of criminal force to woman with intent to disrobe)
  • 354-C (Voyeurism)
  • 354-D (Stalking)
  • 509 (Insulting the modesty of a woman)
  1. Saurabh Kumar Mallick v. Comptroller & Auditor General of India: In this case the Supreme Court held that “It is imperative to take into consideration the recent trend which has emerged with the advent of computer and internet technology and advancement of information technology. A person can interact or do business conferences with another person while sitting in some other country by way of video-conferencing. It has also become a trend that the office is being run by CEOs from their residence. In a case like this, if such an officer indulges in an act of sexual harassment with an employee, say, his private secretary, it would not be open for him to say that he had not committed the act at ‘workplace’ but at his ‘residence’ and get away with the same.”

Therefore, sexually harassing women at cyber workplace is nothing less than sexually harassing them at traditional workplaces.

Even after the lucidity of these Acts, Sections and cases, why do such incidents continue? How come we have ended up producing a society where men think it is okay to sexually harass women? Why after decades of independence are we still fighting for women’s independence? All women ask for is a harassment-free environment. why are we as a society, constantly failing them? Each issue circles back to the root problem- hypermasculinity and undeserving excess power to men. 

Hypermasculinity makes men fear the rising ranks of women, so they pull them down and have several ways to do it and sexual harassment is one such way. In majority of sexual harassment cases, it was found out that the act was not done with sex as the ultimate aim, rather it was done to showcase dominance and power. It is the same power which more than often shields harassers from discovery and punishment. In almost every case unequal power relations are constant. Thence they don’t report the incidents because they fear consequences like losing their job, career getting destroyed and being called liars and troublemakers. These fears encourage them to stay silent. They stay silent and the tolerance of such behaviour leads to more such incidents. In such scenarios, gender inequality is the cause as well as the consequence resulting into a never-ending cycle. In order to achieve a grand change and finish it all off we need to do following:

  • The existing laws should be made clearer. With the advent of Covid-19, it has come to our realization that we should update the laws with advancing technology.
  • New laws like mandating equal ratio of men-women at work should be made in order to take away the excess power from men. To every man in power, there should be a woman holding the same amount of power.
  • The prescribed duties in POSH Act should be strictly fulfilled by all the employees and employers. In order to keep a check on it anonymous surveys should be conducted on a regular basis.
  • Every victim who has been fired or denied promotion in the sole name of “false-victimizing” should be hired back and promoted respectively. This would not only empower the victims but will prevent the future-victims from being afraid of speaking up.
  • Certain seminars and conferences should be held to make workers aware of their rights, redressals and of course, limits.

Conclusion: Though there are certain laws available to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, new ones should be made towards achievement of the actual goal. Also, effective implementation of the existing laws should be paid heed to. The root cause of hypermasculinity should be dealt on a social basis. We as individuals should take up the personal responsibility of changing things for better. Passive bystanders should not be a thing anymore, we should call the harassers out and tell them that even the smallest of their unfair acts is intolerable. Above all, we should make sure that the victims know that we are standing with them. Afterall, a strong person stands up for herself and a stronger person stands up for everyone else.

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