Nannies, cooks, construction workers, farmhands and other women who are primarily employed in India’s informal jobs sector are still routinely sexually harassed and abused at work because a groundbreaking federal law is rarely enforced, a study has found.
According to Human Rights Watch, India’s federal and local governments have not done enough to promote and carry out the functions of the country’s 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act.
The law, known as the Posh Act, mandates that employers with 10 or more workers set up committees to receive and investigate complaints of sexual harassment.
While the global #MeToo movement inspired a host of Bollywood actors and well-known Indian writers to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment, poorer Indian women are less likely to speak out.
The Human Rights Watch report focuses on workplace harassment, but Indian women are routinely subjected to harassment and abuse in and outside of their homes, sometimes with deadly consequences. Poor women and those from lower castes are most likely to be victimized.
Mina Jadav, a trade union leader who represents women in the informal sector in the western Indian state of Gujarat, said sexual harassment, including slurs and physical violence, were commonplace.
“On many occasions, women will not complain. If the victim is a young girl, then more chances that she will not speak. Families try to hide the incidents,” Ms. Jadav said.
Under the Posh Act, complaint committees must be led by a woman and include at least one outside expert in the field of sexual harassment. The committees have the power of a civil court to subpoena witnesses and evidence, and can recommend remedies, including actions against the alleged perpetrator ranging from fines to termination.
But for 195 million workers employed in the informal jobs sector — 95 percent of the women employed in India, according to Human Rights Watch — it is up to local governments to create district-level committees to educate women about their rights and to receive and process sexual harassment complaints.
Gender discrimination, the stigma associated with speaking out and a backlogged court system where cases of all kinds linger for years have led women to avoid seeking and receiving justice.
The Posh Act was created to give women an alternative to the courts, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “More people are reluctant to go to the police or go to the court — that is almost always a barrier for people to report because they find that it could take away years of their lives,” she said.
Employers have been slow to adapt to the law, according to Vishal Kedia, founder of Complykaro, a Mumbai-based consultancy that helps companies with compliance.
According to Complykaro, more than 40 percent of companies on the Bombay Stock Exchange reported zero sexual harassment complaints between the fiscal years 2015 and 2019.
“They may not be doing awareness, hence the fear still exists of coming forward to file a complaint,” Mr. Kedia said.
The situation is most stark for women in the informal sector, according to Human Rights Watch, which relied on 85 interviews in three Indian states with workers, trade union officials, activists, lawyers and academics.
“In many of the places either the committees are not in existence, or if they have come to existence then the members are not notified, or not enough training has taken place. So there are challenges of implementation,” said Sunieta Ojha, a lawyer in Delhi who has represented many women in civil sexual harassment suits against male colleagues or bosses.
In response to general criticism about the Posh Act, India’s powerful home minister, Amit Shah, presided over a committee of ministers that in January made a list of recommendations, including adding workplace sexual harassment to India’s penal code.