Misuse of sexual harassment laws in India

Raghavi Viswanath

The Indian judiciary has seen a decelerated evolution with regards to sexual harassment laws. This article seeks to highlight and analyze the various flaws in the legal apparatus to deal with sexual harassment as it exists today.

One of the most dubious provisions is Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. While the provision has been created to protect women from marital violence, the arbitrariness that it confers upon the police authorities as well as the women who allege domestic violence has been received with opprobrium and accused of fostering misogyny. Domestic violence under Section 498-A is a cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence. Such an arrangement lets no room for out-of-court settlements. The petitioners do not have the option of revoking the charges. Complaints filed under this Section also warrant immediate arrests of the husband and the family members where necessary. A necessary implication of the non-bailable nature of the offence is the bleak possibility of the marital relationship being restored. The impact of these consequences is manifold because the charges are irrevocable. Statistics show that in the period of 2011-2012, there was a 9.4% increase in the number of cases registered under Section 498A1. However, its counter-narrative lies in the fact that the conviction rate is a miserly figure of 15%2.

Suggestions have been made to amend the provision that has oft-been termed diabolic. The Malimath Committee on Criminal reforms (2003) suggested that the offence under Section 498-A be made compoundable and bailable. This view was reiterated in the 243rd Law Commission Report. Justice CK Prasad in his judgment in the case of Arnesh Kumar v State of Bihar3also highlighted the pressing need to balance the interests of the woman as well the stability of the family.

Another legal breakthrough is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 that was enacted after more than a decade of deliberation and re-examination. The landmark judgment of the Court in the Vishakha case was accompanied by a set of guidelines, in lieu of India’s international and constitutional commitments( such as the Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against  Women and the right to safe work environment and right to freely practice one’s profession enshrined in Articles 19(1)(g), 15(3), 21 and 14).The Act , in the backdrop of the Court’s decision in the MedhaKotwal case and the Vishakha case, laid down a framework for investigation of complaints of sexual harassment . The mandatory nature of the Act can be attributed to the prescribed punishment for non-compliance. It not only protected the female employees, but any woman, whether employee or not, who was sexually assaulted within the premises of workplace as defined in Section 2(o) of the Act.

The Act has been touted to be the torchbearer of feminist legislation for several reasons, Firstly, the Act is not gender neutral and men are barred from filing similar complaints. The employer is also held liable for sexual harassment in places like taxis, hotels and also the offices of clients, where the employer hardly has any authority or control4. The investigation Committees such as the Internal Complaints Committee and the Local Complaints Committee have powers equivalent to a civil Court as enumerated in Section11.  However, the members of such Committees need not have any legal backing. The ambiguity of such criteria is heightened in the case of the Local Complaints Committee where the Presiding Officer should be ‘committed to the cause of women’( used in Section 4 and Section 7 of the Act), a subjective standard that can be neither justified nor disproved. Moreover, the inclusion of such a criterion suggests pre-conceived gender biases and this violates the general standards of impartiality.

The Act does not fall within the domain of the Right to Information Act. Therefore, details of false complaints or fabricated cases will not be available. As per Section 15 of the Act, action will be taken for false complaints. However, if the complaint is not substantiated, then the woman will be provided complete immunity. Furthermore, the identity of the woman will be kept confidential even in cases of false complaints. The compensation prescribed under the Act eschews the principle of equality before the law as it is awarded progressively, proportionate to the income earned by the respondent.

The draconian character of the legislation has drawn the attention of several authorities. The Central Administrative Tribunal, in a bench comprising of Judges KB Suresh and PK Pradhan, adjudicating upon cases of sexual harassment at the workplace, characterized Section 4 and 7 of the Act as ‘unconstitutional’5. The Bench held that the legislation was ‘double-edged’ and the Vishakha Committees found sufficient leeway for manipulation. The fear of punishment compelled even the higher echelons of authorities to dismiss their employees even before adjudicating the merits of the complaint.

On the flipside, the existing framework has been misused to impede justice to the female victims in most situations. Marital rape, in India, continues to be a standing example of such travesty of justice. Sexual assault by one’s spouse accounts for approximately 25% of rapes committed6.

With the case of R v R7, the English Courts widened the ambit of sexual harassment by recognizing marital rape. This judgment negated the oft-believed concept that marriage leads to natural implication of consent of the wife to sexual intercourse.  However, marital rape still eludes the Indian legal framework.  The root cause of this problem lies in the archaic construction of the statutory provisions pertaining to rape, namely Section 375 and Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, both of which explicitly exclude sexual assault on the wife. The law further discriminates between marital bonds and prescribes punishment for marital rape only if the wife is under 16 years if age beyond which she has no remedy. Furthermore, since according to Section 122 of the Evidence Act, the communication between a husband and a wife cannot be treated as evidence unless for a persecuted offence, law does not allow any evidence for corroboration of marital rape.

While the 172nd Law Commission report did suggest changes to broaden the scope for justice by deleting Section 376 A, the victim suffers a ‘second rape’ in the hands of the law itself. The procedural laws are also used against the interests of the victim to stifle her. One of these defenses is Section 155(4) of the Evidence Act under which the victim can be questioned about her past. The element of physical evidence to prove lack of consent has deterred several victims, especially in the lower Courts. As India matures as a democracy, it is imperative not only for laws to be enacted, but adequate safeguards to prevent their abuse so that the best interests of the victim are promoted.

  1. SauravDatta, What Powers the “Section 498-A misuse” bandwagon?, 5 July, 2014, available at http://www.dnaindia.com/india/standpoint-what-powers-the-section-498a-misuse-bandwagon-1999791, accessed on 24th January,2015 []
  2. ibid []
  3. SLP (CRL.) No.9127 of 2013 []
  4. Available at http://www.avoiceformen.com/feminism/feminist-governance-feminism/indias-new-sexual-harassment-at-workplace-law/, accessed on 24th January,2015 []
  5. Krishnaprasad, CAT finds illegality in law against sexual harassment at workplace, The Hindu, 13 July, 2014, available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/cat-finds-illegality-in-law-against-sexual-harassment-at-workplace/article6204747.ece, accessed on 24th January, 2015 []
  6. Priyanka Rath,  Marital Rape and the Indian legal scenario, India Law Journal, Available at http://www.indialawjournal.com/volume2/issue_2/article_by_priyanka.html, accessed on 24th January, 2015 []
  7. [1994] 4 All ER 481 [HL] []

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