During her judgeship at the Delhi High Court, Justice Leila Seth was introduced by her male colleagues as “meet our lady judge” and she retorted that no judge is ever introduced with “meet our male or gentleman judge”. At the beginning of her career as well, she received advice from senior lawyers to get married and raise a family instead of starting a career in law. The present instance is a very subtle expression of sexual discrimination a woman is subjected to if she steps out of her home to work and make a livelihood.
Throughout the world, women are subjected to prejudice in every realm of their lives and sexual violence has reached the stage of a global epidemic that needs to be addressed urgently as it violates the basic human right of a woman. However, until recent times, sexual discrimination or sexual violence against women was not treated as a serious concern by any employer or government.
According to the definition of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment of any kind is any unwelcome or unwanted sexual advance or conduct that impedes a person’s job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment. In India, after independence, there were very few gender-specific laws to protect the basic human rights of women by preventing and redressing sexual discrimination and sexual violence against women.
There are different classes of offences perpetrated against women which includes the offences of female foeticide to kill a woman even before her birth, female infanticide, depriving women from the right to inherit family property, mental and physical cruelty at matrimonial home, torturing women for dowry, sexual harassment of women at workplace and some serious and heinous crimes like trafficking, rape and acid attacks.
According to a publication of the WHO, “sexual violence includes any of the following acts: rape, marital rape, domestic violence, child abuse, female infanticide, denial of health care or nutrition to girls, sexual and emotional harassment, genital mutilation, prostitution, pornography, population control, war and state violence, exploitation of refugees, political violence, and reduction in state services which increases the stress and workload for women”.
Sexual offences in the form of sexual violence can cause severe and permanent damage to the physical and mental health of the victims and may also lead to suicide, acute depression and even murder of the victim. The victims of the sexual offences are stigmatised and consequently, they lose their status in their families and society which in turn disrupts their life and social wellbeing.
The Indian Constitution provides that any kind of sexual violence is a violation of the fundamental right to equality, right to life and right to live with dignity by virtue of Articles 14, 15 and 21. Article 19 (1) (g) of the Indian Constitution grants the right to practice or to carry out any occupation, trade or business and it includes a right to a safe environment free from harassment.
Although India has signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms Discrimination against Women, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, in 1979, it took a long time to frame laws and procedures to end discrimination against women. The CEDAW signatory countries are legally bound to put the following measures into practice in order to end discrimination against women:
- to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
- to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
- to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.
Owing to the dynamic feminist movements and demands for laws to protect women from sexual discriminations and offences, the Indian parliament has passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act. 2013) to amend the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 to define various kinds of sexual offences including aggravated sexual offences like rape and acid attacks and provide related procedures and punitive measures.
In 2013, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 was also enacted adhering to the principles and guidelines laid down by the landmark Vishaka Judgement of the Supreme Court in 1997 aiming to ensure safe working places for women and to create conducive and healthy work environments that recognizes the right to equality of status and opportunity of every woman. A successful implementation of these new laws will definitely facilitate the achievement of the right to gender equality, life and liberty and equality in working conditions for women.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She is a legal professional working in a Law Firm in Kolkata. She has a brief experience of content writing for a few Law portals. Currently, Shampa is pursuing a course on Cyber Law Practice, Information Technology and Social Media Law from NUJS.