India’s Sexual Harassment Law Has Failed 94% of Working Women: Report
In India, approximately 94% of all working women are employed in the informal sector — as domestic help, farmhands, construction workers, and other informal jobs. These women face a persistent onslaught of sexual abuse and harassment in their workplaces, without any institutional frameworks to protect them, concludes a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) study. For these women, a #MeToo moment never arrived, the report says.
“For women like me, what is #MeToo? Poverty and stigma mean we can never speak out. There is no place safe for women like us. Not our workplaces, nor our homes, and not the road we take,” a domestic worker in Gurgaon tells HRW.
India has codified workplace protections for working women, both in the formal and informal sectors, under the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) (POSH) Act. It requires all employers with 10 or more employees to set up internal committees to address sexual harassment claims, in a process that’s designed to be quicker than long-winded legal routes. Districts are also required to set up local committees, to ensure women, especially those in the informal sector, have an alternate route to redressal. The POSH Act is widely considered an important legislative milestone in India’s history that sought to bring in women working in the informal sector — but it has unfortunately ended up as an empty promise for most employed women.
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“Everyone thinks of harassment as trivial. ‘Just ignore,’ is what everyone says. If it becomes too much, then I think it is better to report because the more you tolerate, the more it happens. But we are poor, and we are also afraid if we report our employers, they can file false charges of theft against us, so we are scared to raise our voices,” another domestic worker tells HRW.
Poverty remains a key reason why sexual harassment in informal sector workplaces goes unaddressed — financially vulnerable women are forced to prioritize their income over their well-being. The stigma surrounding sexual abuse and harassment, coupled with a fear of retribution from their employers and families, and a completely daunting, tedious process of legal recourse further complicate the problem of reporting and dealing with the consequences of the harm.
“Seven years after the 2013 law was enacted, the government has not published any data or information on the functioning or effectiveness of Local Committees that are responsible for dealing with sexual harassment complaints in the informal sector,” the HRW report says. A 2018 report evaluating 655 districts in India over this very stipulation of the POSH Act found a majority of districts had failed to set up these committees, with only 29% of the districts surveyed responding they had done so. A lack of awareness surrounding local committees, and the failure of the central government to provide adequate resources and funding to the states to spread said awareness has led to this failure, a local committee chair from Mumbai, Anagha Sarpotdar, tells HRW, adding there is no money earmarked for the implementation of the POSH Act in the budget.
“There is no awareness or training from the government on the sexual harassment law, for instance, if something happens how we should complain. They only tell us that if there is an emergency at any time, we have to respond to the call,” an ASHA worker tells HRW.
With the problem so pervasive and rampant, the need of the hour, HRW recommends, is to invest resources into ensuring the POSH Act is implemented universally and to make data about employers’ and districts’ non-compliance with the Act public to force accountability. Sexual harassment at work is an issue that affects 195 million women in India — its solution cannot be a law left to languish on paper.