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The Other side of 'Educated' Urban Indian Woman...

Padmaja Iyengar
Padmaja Iyengar
Senior Consultant, Foundation for Futuristic Cities
Padmaja had served for over three decades in different geographic locations as a senior banking p... more>>
This article coming from a woman may surprise some women and irk quite a few. However, I believe that as a woman, I am the most ‘qualified’ and ‘experienced’ to write it….

After independence, the number of educated urban Indian women has increased exponentially. Today, women are professionally engaged at all levels - the better educated ones in banking, corporate, government and social sectors ( a good number holding top positions in these sectors) and the lesser educated ones as bus conductors, petrol bunk operators, office peons, sales girls etc. And there are the maids, sweepers, cooks etc. In fact, many rural girls migrate to towns and cities for better education and job opportunities.

The Indian woman of today is definitely more self-assured, confident, articulate, aware and conscious of her rights.

As educated urban women have fanned out in all sectors (with an oft-repeated grouse that the ‘glass ceiling’ still exists....), Government of India on its part, has framed several laws to protect women. I will name two for the purposes of this article, Section 498-A of IPC to protect women against Dowry Harassment and the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010.

Both the above are laudable, positive and proactive steps towards protecting the much-harassed Indian women. While the education, literacy and awareness levels in India have increased by leaps and bounds, it is an undeniable fact that the system of giving and taking dowry still exists and also, a large number of women experience sexual harassment at the work place (and other places too)  in some form or the other.

A point to be pondered here is, if these laws have greatly helped the real victims, they have also been often misused by unscrupulous women…

Section 498-A:

Passed by the Indian Parliament in 1983, Indian Penal Code 498-A, is a criminal law (not a civil law) which is defined as follows:

“Whoever, being the husband or the relative of the husband of a woman, subjects such woman to cruelty shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also beliable to fine. The offence is Cognizable, non-compoundable and non-bailable.”

Section 498-A can be only invoked by the wife / daughter-in-law or her relative/s.

Section 498-A has enormously helped dowry victims. However, it is a sad reality that many victims (especially from rural and semi-urban areas) are still unaware of this law and continue to suffer in silence due to social and family pressures and in extreme cases, resort to suicide. Their story comes out in the open if the victim’s parents or relatives lodge a police complaint or the media catches up with it….

The flipside of Section 498-A is that many cases especially from the urban and metro areas where this Section is being increasingly invoked, turn out to be false (as repeatedly accepted by High Courts and Supreme Court) because they are mere blackmail attempts by the wife (or her close relatives) when faced with a strained marriage.

The Supreme Court of India and various High Courts have noted the gross misuse of IPC Section 498-A in various judgments  - the Supreme Court declared 498-A as "Legal Terrorism" while giving judgment in the matter of Sushil Kumar Sharma Vs. Union of India (UOI) and Others.

The irony here is that while her less fortunate, less educated and less aware sisters continue to suffer dowry harassment, sometimes ending in suicides, several educated urban Indian women have merrily misused the provisions of IPC Section 498-A to settle scores or “negotiate” large settlements from their hapless husbands. There have been cases where a woman in an extra-marital affair has misused Section 498-A to “secure” her future, duly aided by her paramour.

Several reports of abuse of Section 498-A have involved couples based outside India especially in the US and Canada.

The well publicized case of Dr. Balamurali Ambati of USA, who earned his MD at the young age of 17 is a case in point.  He was detained in India along with his family members for over three years in a law suit filed by the family of his brother's wife related to alleged dowry demands. All the charges against him were dismissed in October 1996, and all his family members were acquitted in June 1999. The case delayed Dr. Ambati's entry to the Ophthalmology Program by two years, leaving him to begin his residency in 1998. During the course of the trial, the Ambatis produced a tape in which his brother’s father-in-law demanded US $500,000 to drop all the charges. The details of this particular case are still debated in India….

Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010

Sexual harassment is intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. In the modern legal context, sexual harassment is illegal. It is unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature. It could be by way of offensive remarks about a person’s sex – for example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Women employees and workers in India can breathe easy because their right to lead a dignified life has received a legal sanctity now. The ‘Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010’ was introduced in December, 2010 in the Parliament. The Bill intends to provide legal protection for women against sexual harassment at the workplace, both in public and private sectors. It was referred to the Department-related Standing Committee on Human Resource Development and their report was presented on 8.12.2011.

The Bill is based on a August 13, 1997 Supreme Court ruling that held sexual harassment of women as a violation of the fundamental right to work in a safe environment. The formation of Complaint Committee against Sexual Harassment in every governmental and non-governmental or private organization was also directed. (Vishakha & Ors vs. State of Rajasthan & ors.)

The Supreme Court commented: “Gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and right to work with dignity, which is a universally recognized basic human right.”

While women victims who have been bold and tenacious have set new standards of empowerment by invoking the provisions of the above Bill against their immediate bosses / employers/ colleagues, there are also several cases of males being victims of sexual harassment at workplace at the hands of their female bosses / employers / colleagues. Unfortunately, these cases don’t come out in the open much and often remain unreported.

When called by the Standing Committee, men’s organizations giving examples about gender neutral laws in countries like Denmark, the UK, Ireland, Finland, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, The Netherlands, argued that since the percentage of women at superior levels was steadily on the increase, men too were sexually harassed at the workplace The men’s groups said, the proposed law was ignoring this fact and that it was heavily biased towards women.

Accepting that men too can be victims of sexual harassment at workplace, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resource Development (HRD), examining the Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010, has suggested to the government to incorporate enabling provisions in the proposed law through which circumstances of sexual harassment cases of men too can be addressed. The Committee suggested that regular surveys be conducted to get an idea on sexual harassment towards men also.

“The Committee, keeping in mind the interests of all concerned, feels that the viability of having a provision of enabling nature where circumstances of sexual harassment cases of men at workplace can be tackled may be explored Alternatively, an employer / establishment can be mandated to report cases / instances of male sexual harassment also in their Annual report. This may help understand the real picture,” the report said.

Conclusion


Let’s not forget that if there was a Seeta in Ramayana, there was also a Manthara, Kaikeyi and Shurpankha. While the time and context have changed, even now, there are many Mantharas, Kaikeyis and Shurpanakhas amongst us along with the Raavans….

There are several instances when top bureaucrats, corporate sector honchos and other well-placed males have ‘bought’ peace from their “harassed” wives / female colleagues to avoid social and professional stigma, and more importantly, the arduous and humiliating police and judicial processes.

Due to various factors, the Indian legal system has not yet fully developed to provide timely justice to the aggrieved. The problem, therefore, needs to be thoroughly explored and examined in the context of rights for  ensuring a just and equitable social order, where nobody can be treated or exploited by another as unequal.

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