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Hush-hush no more: Women employees reporting more instances of sexual harassment after new law

Mumbai/New Delhi: For almost eight months, 30-year-old Reena Sahani spurned inappropriate requests by her boss to meet him outside of work. He changed tack, loading her with more work to make her stay back late in office. Finally, emboldened by chats with a company-appointed counsellor, she lodged a complaint. Rooma Sircar, an IT executive, tolerated an innuendo of sexually explicit jokes by a senior male colleague for many months, before she too reported it. Both names have been changed on request.

Even a few months ago, most instances of sexual harassment would have remained unreported. But now, after a new law on prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace was enacted this April, aggrieved employees are reporting more instances of sexual harassment, say consultants, counsellors and lawyers.

Compared with 2010, counselling cases related to sexual harassment have increased four times in 2013, according to PPC Worldwide, which provides employee assistance programmes to more than 100 companies in India. "People were earlier afraid to voice out such things, but with a lot of initiatives from employers, more cases are now coming out," says Amber Alam, head of business-India at PPC Worldwide.

Companies that didn't have a harassment policy are putting one in place; those that did are revising them to comply with the statute; counsellors are dealing with more such cases and lawyers are pressing more such charges. "Our firm is looking at more such cases," says Sajai Singh, senior partner at law firm J Sagar Associates.

More client meetings, team-building exercises and dinners, he says, have expanded the definition of a workplace and the chances of harassment. "Gen Y is coming into the workforce, they won't tolerate such incidents."

More instances of sexual harassment involving two individuals of the same sex are also being reported and investigated. J Sagar Associates, Singh says, is now looking at three such cases in MNCs. "But the government has no provisions for same-gender harassment, which is also prevalent," he adds. Companies have become more alert to the issue of sexual harassment, even though the government is yet to issue the required notifications to bring the new law into force. Employers like Hewlett-Packard, Wipro, Standard Chartered Bank, among others, which already had anti-sexual harassment policies, are reframing these in line with the new law. Says Lira Goswami, senior partner at Associated Law Advisers, "Many MNCs already have a policy. But they need to tweak those as there are very detailed requirements according to the new act."

Standard Chartered is currently carrying out gap analysis in its sexual harassment policy for greater scrutiny and to make it more robust, says Dominic White, regional head, HR, India & South Asia.

Law firms are currently helping many companies that don't have such policies draft one. "The law is putting pressure on companies that were not aware about the need for having a sexual harassment committee," says Archana Bisht, director at 1to1help.net, which provides counselling services to companies.

"We have seen an increase in establishment of prevention of sexual harassment committees at the workplace," adds Elizabeth John, clinical manager-India, PPC Worldwide.

The new law states that such committees must be headed by a woman and have at least 50% female members, including HR, senior management as well as senior external psychologists, for fair and clean investigation of reported offences.

"We are also in touch with the committees in other organisations to learn about new benchmarks," says Priti Kataria, chairperson of Wipro's Prevention of Sexual Harassment' Committee.