In Focus

Changes in law affect rights of women as well

By Nivedita Pal

The Indian judiciary comprising the High Courts of the states and the Apex Court i.e. the Supreme Court have, time and again, delivered judgments and orders that uphold the rights and dignity of women in the country. The progressive judgments delivered by these courts, since Independence, have helped and, sometimes, persuaded the Indian executive and the legislature to frame laws to uphold women rights.

India is one of the few countries in the world with maximum number of laws that protect women and empower them. The Indian Constitution, through the Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and the Directive Principles guarantees equal rights to all citizens. In fact, there are several provisions in the Constitution that embody the spirit of gender equality and lay the ground for framing policies, mechanisms, safeguards and programmes for protection and, more importantly, empowerment of women in the country.

The Indian Constitution upholds women rights through right to equality, right to life with dignity and right to freedom from discrimination. In addition, there are several laws that ensure protection of women rights and dignity.

When a judicial body delivers an order, that order becomes binding on the parties, that in such cases are often the state or the central government. In this manner, the judiciary plays a crucial role in interpreting the law to uphold women rights, providing a lawful impetus to the law-making bodies in framing laws that protect women and setting precedents for lower courts and guiding them to deliver such judgments.

There are countless judgments that have positively influenced the women rights movement in India and upheld their constitutional rights affecting different spheres of a woman’s life.

One of the most important cases that provided for safety of women from sexual harassment at workplace was the Vishakha and others v/s State of Rajasthan case. Bhanwari Devi, a social worker (saathin) in Rajasthan was working with a state government programme to prevent child marriages. At one such instance, she tried unsuccessfully to protest against and stop a child marriage of a one-year-old infant. The family head, Ramakant Gujjar in a bid to seek revenge for the humiliation raped Bhanwari Devi with five of his men in front of her husband. The lower courts acquitted all the accused.

Consequentially, Vishakha (group for women’s education and research) along with four other women organisations filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of the issue of sexual harassment of women at workplace and the absence of any protection - to enforce Fundamental Rights of working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. In 1997, the court ordered farming of such guidelines as Vishakha Guidelines to be practiced at workplaces by the employers. These guidelines eventually formed the basis of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 - an extremely important law to protect millions of Indian women who step out of their households to earn a living for their families.

The judgment laid down that it is the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in workplaces or other institutions to prevent sexual harassment and furnish employees with mechanisms for effective resolution of such incidents. The Supreme Court also defined ‘Sexual Harassment’ for this purpose as disagreeable sexually determined behavior direct or indirect as:
- physical contact and advances;
- a demand or request for sexual favours;
- sexually-coloured remarks;
- showing pornography;
- any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature