Indian women at risk of sexual abuse at work, says Human Rights Watch


The Indian government’s failure to properly enforce its sexual harassment law leaves millions of women in the workplace exposed to abuse without remedy, said Human Rights Watch.

The 56-page report in a report released on Wednesday, “‘No #MeToo for Women Like Us’: Poor Enforcement of India’s Sexual Harassment Law,” finds that while women in India are increasingly speaking out against sexual abuse at work, many, particularly in the informal sector, are still constrained by stigma, fear of retribution, and institutional barriers to justice.

The rights group went on to say the Indian government should urgently ensure compliance with its 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, or POSH Act as it is popularly known.

The report stated that the central and local governments have failed to promote, establish, and monitor complaints committees – a central feature of the POSH Act – to receive complaints of sexual harassment, conduct inquiries, and recommend actions against abusers.

“The #MeToo movement helped to shine a light on violence and harassment at work, but the experiences of millions of women in India’s informal sector remain invisible,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“India has progressive laws to protect women from sexual abuse by bosses, colleagues, and clients, but has failed to take basic steps to enforce these laws.”

Human Rights Watch conducted field research and over 85 interviews in Tamil Nadu, Haryana, and Delhi, including with women working in both the formal and informal sectors, trade union officials, labour and women rights activists, lawyers, and academics.

Women, inspired by the global #MeToo movement, who came forward with complaints against men in senior positions have often encountered a backlash, including threats, intimidation, retaliation, attempted bribes, gaps and bias in legal procedure, and stigma.

Those accused have frequently used the colonial-era criminal defamation law against the women who dare to speak out. These produce a chilling effect deterring other victims from coming forward.

The September 2020 alleged gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh state highlighted both rampant violence against women in India and structural violence against poor and marginalized communities. The authorities’ response illustrates the barriers women face in accessing justice.

The vast majority of India’s women workers, 95 percent (195 million), are employed in the informal sector. These include jobs from street vendors, domestic work, agriculture, and construction, to home-based work, such as weaving or embroidery.

The 2013 POSH Act mandates employers to take steps to protect female employees from sexual harassment in the workplace and to provide procedures for resolution, settlement, or prosecution.

It widened the definition of the workplace and covered the informal sector, including domestic workers. It protects all workers in any place visited by the employee during the course of her employment, including transportation.

Domestic workers are especially at risk of sexual harassment and violence due to their isolation in private homes and their exclusion from many key labour protections guaranteed to other workers.

The Indian government should amend the law to ensure that domestic workers have the same access to time-bound justice through the Local Committees as other workers, Human Rights Watch said.

In June 2019, the Indian government, representatives of Indian workers’ groups, and representatives from Indian employers’ associations all voted in favour of the International Labour Organization Violence and Harassment Convention, a landmark treaty that establishes global standards to prevent and respond to violence and harassment in the workplace.

India should ratify the ILO treaty and fully enforce the POSH Act, Human Rights Watch said. (Source: HRW)