NOW that the Americans and the British have "liberated" Iraq, all of us can get back to work. The 24-hour news channels can wake up to events happening in other parts of the world. And the world can draw a deep breath before knives are sharpened for another "preventive" war, against Syria, perhaps?
If you look at the newspapers of the last three weeks, it would be hard to imagine that there has been anything else happening anywhere else in the world except in Iraq barring the spread of the mysterious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Yet, life does not stop just because a jugalbandi called Bush and Blair decide to work out their war fantasy in a land some distance away from their own and representing no convincing danger to their lands.
So while Cruise missiles rained on Iraq, and the Anglo-American forces showed off their latest armaments on real-time TV, men, women and children in India were dying for reasons unrelated to that kind of war. They continued to die of hunger and disease, to be killed in sectarian violence, to be murdered because they were women, to be brutalised because they belonged to a particular caste. The list has remained depressingly consistent over time.
In the last month, women's groups have also been involved in another kind of war as they engaged in a vigorous debate with the National Commission on Women (NCW) about a bill on sexual harassment that has yet to be tabled in Parliament. The Sexual Harassment of Women at their Work Place (Prevention) Bill, 2000 has been pending for the last two years. Women's groups rejected the first draft as they found it completely inadequate. In the course of the last two years, these groups have consulted other groups around the country and communicated their suggestions both orally and in writing to the NCW.
Anyone genuinely concerned about the status of women in India would have to acknowledge that a law alone cannot deal with the tricky issue of sexual harassment. There is always a fine dividing line between good-natured teasing and remarks that are aimed to make the woman feel uncomfortable, demeaned and reminded of her gender. In a workplace, just as a secular tradition ought to be followed to ensure that people of all religions and no religion are not made to feel uncomfortable or out of place, there should also be an atmosphere where women can feel safe and respected and not victimised because of their gender.
A law can act as a deterrent because it could make men, who do not think twice before picking on women, or trying to pick them up, in their work place, pause and reconsider their actions. It could also give women the confidence to speak out and complain if they are harassed.
At the same time, even the best law cannot solve a problem that is rooted in unequal gender relations, often complicated by factors of class, caste and religion. Women employed in the lower rungs of an organisation are far more susceptible to sexual harassment than the "power" women, of whom the numbers are still minuscule but growing. Quite often, although not always, the latter can deal with this kind of harassment, petty or more serious, because of the confidence their class or position in the organisation gives them. The former, however, are afraid of losing their jobs and therefore silently tolerate the intolerable. There are also those who go along with sexual overtures and see that as a route to getting ahead in life. They see themselves as realists and cannot see the point in trying to buck a system that has prevailed over time.
Even without the law, there is already a legal precedent set by the Supreme Court, in its landmark judgment in the Vishakha case, where it laid down that all organisations employing women should set up a Complaints Committee that will allow women to report to them in complete confidence if they are victims of any form of sexual harassment. Very few companies have complied with this ruling. Even those that have set up such committees have done so only after women either within or outside the organisation have put some pressure.
A recent case from Kolkata is an illustration of this. A leading newspaper had to confront the issue when one of its women journalists complained of sexual harassment by her immediate senior. When she got no response from her management, she turned to a network of women journalists who pursued her case. In the end the management agreed to set up sexual harassment committees. But the process exposed both their reluctance and their inability to understand the seriousness of the issue (for more details check www.nwmindia.org).
This is not the space to discuss the details of the bill that the NCW is supposed to circulate and discuss with a wide cross-section of women's groups. But the critique prepared by the women's groups needs to be heeded if the government is serious about having a useful law. There is absolutely no point in stuffing our statute books with laws that remain on paper and give no real solace to the people for whom they were designed.