Harassment Against Women: A Pervasive and Multidimensional Issue

Session Report
Asra Malik

Harassment against women is a deeply entrenched and pervasive societal issue that permeates various spheres of life, including homes, workplaces, academic institutions, public spaces, and the virtual realm. It manifests in myriad forms, ranging from physical and sexual abuse to emotional, psychological, and financial exploitation. As the second speaker of Day 5 on “Ending Gender-Based Violence Cohort 2” online national spring school program organized by IMPRI and the Gender Impact Studies Center, Advocate Celin Thomas shed light on the various facets of this complex problem and the legal frameworks in place to address them.

Domestic Violence: A Hidden Epidemic

Domestic violence is often shrouded in secrecy, occurring within the confines of homes where trust and intimacy are expected. Thomas emphasized that it extends beyond just physical violence, encompassing emotional, verbal, and financial abuse as well. The Domestic Violence Act in India provides women with civil liberties and protections against violence from spouses and in-laws, recognizing the multidimensional nature of domestic abuse.

Financial harassment: An Insidious Form of Control

A particularly insidious form of abuse is financial exploitation, where men exert control over women’s finances and assets. Thomas recounted cases where husbands have misappropriated substantial sums from their wives, leaving them financially vulnerable and dependent. This form of abuse often occurs within the trusted domestic setup, where victims are manipulated into relinquishing control over their finances.

Harassment against vulnerable groups, such as senior citizens and girl children, is an equally concerning issue. As women age, they are often perceived as liabilities, leading to neglect, deprivation of basic care, and even abandonment by their families after transferring their properties. Girl children, too, are subjected to abuse by family members, which can have lasting psychological and physical impacts.

Workplace Harassment: Shattering Professional Sanctuaries

The POSH Act (Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace) defines sexual harassment broadly, encompassing not only physical acts but also verbal and virtual misconduct. Thomas highlighted the escalation of virtual harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic, with instances of inappropriate messages, calls, and stalking on social media platforms becoming more prevalent, particularly in multinational corporations.

Harassment in Academic Institutions: Protecting the Future

The POSH Act and UGC Guidelines of 2015 provide a broader ambit of protection for individuals in academic settings, including students who do not identify with their birth gender. These regulations establish mechanisms for reporting and addressing complaints of abuse, fostering a safer learning environment for all students, regardless of their gender identity.

Public Spaces and Virtual Abuse: Extending the Reach of Justice

For incidents of violence in public spaces, the first step is to report to the police, although this process can be intimidating. Women’s police stations in some states, like Karnataka, offer a more accessible and supportive environment for filing complaints. Additionally, provisions for online/zero FIR registration from anywhere aim to streamline the reporting process.

Virtual abuse, such as defamation, trolling, hate pages, and stalking, can be reported to cybercrime police stations, which often allow online complaint registration. Thomas cautioned, however, that complainants need to be vigilant about potential police intervention aimed at skirting responsibility or engaging in unethical practices, such as demanding personal details or hindering the complaint process.

Legal Remedies and Practical Solutions

The Domestic Violence Act provides women with various legal remedies, including protection orders against family members, residence orders ensuring they cannot be evicted from their homes during legal proceedings, and compensation for physical injuries, medical expenses, legal costs, and maintenance for themselves and their children. In cases of domestic violence, the Act ensures that custody of children remains with the mother, providing them with a secure and supportive environment.

Women can also file criminal charges against spouses and in-laws under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for instances of cruelty and abuse, leading to potential imprisonment. While marital rape is not explicitly criminalized under the IPC, cases of sexual violence within marriages can be addressed under the Domestic Violence Act, providing legal recourse for women.

Senior citizens who have transferred properties to their children can approach tribunals to cancel gift deeds and ensure their children provide financial support and care. The POCSO Act (Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses) is a stringent regulation that holds everyone accountable for reporting and preventing crimes against children, ensuring a safer environment for minors.

The POSH Act mandates a full-fledged inquiry and conciliation process for addressing workplace harassment complaints, ensuring procedural fairness and accountability. Women who have suffered sexual assault in the workplace can also seek assistance from women’s rights commissions, which can ensure proper police action and access to remedial measures.

Importance of Documentation and identification of Harassment

Thomas emphasized the importance of maintaining written accounts and preserving evidence for effective legal recourse, as it provides a solid foundation for adjudication. She also stressed the need for awareness about the nuances of various laws and provisions, enabling individuals to leverage them to their advantage and seek relief for themselves or their loved ones.

The #MeToo Movement: A Catalyst for Change

The #MeToo movement has been a catalyst for change, shedding light on the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and violence against women, not just among the elite but across all segments of society. It has amplified the voices of survivors and inspired others to come forward, challenging the culture of silence and impunity that often surrounds these issues.

Societal Responsibility and Empowerment

Addressing violence against women requires a multi-pronged approach involving legal reforms, robust enforcement mechanisms, and societal awareness. Empowering women through education, economic independence, and access to support services is essential for preventing and combating violence. Promoting gender equality, respect, and non-violence through sustained efforts in education, media, and community initiatives is vital for creating a culture of safety and dignity for all.

Conclusion

Violence against women is a complex and deeply rooted societal issue that demands comprehensive and sustained efforts to address its various manifestations. By strengthening legal frameworks, promoting awareness, and fostering a culture of respect and equality, we can create a safer and more just society for all women, regardless of their age, social status, or circumstances.

Acknowledgement: Asra Malik, Research Intern at IMPRI.

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