Vishakha & others v. State of Rajasthan (AIR 1997 SC 3011)

Landmark Case of Sexual Harassment

Many Landmark judgements of the Supreme Court have left a deep impact on our society and history. One of them is Vishakha & others v. State of Rajasthan (AIR 1997) as it laid down the issue and certain guidelines to deal with the hazard of sexual harassment against women. The decision was made by a bench of three judges consist of Chief Justice Verma, Justice B.N. Kripal and Justice Sujata V. Manohar. In our country fifty percent of the population is taken up by the women and are now supposed to work in all the sectors. Women are also seen to be working on the places which were only reserved for men earlier. This positive change of equality turns into horrifying and hazardous incidents in the form of rape and harassment or sexual harassment. Even at the workplace they became victim of physical and mental torture because men treated women as object. 

The court gives the definition of sexual harassment as any unwelcome gesture, unpleasant taunt \ comment, physical touch or conduct, showing of pornography, making appeals for sex. Sexual harassment violates certain fundamental rights of women particularly right to equality (Article 14), right to life (Article 21), prohibition of discrimination on the ground of religion, race, sex etc., (Article 15), freedom of speech (Article 19).

Facts of the Vishakha & others v. Rajasthan case: The facts of the case are as follows:

  • Bhanwari Devi was a dalit social worker or activist in one of the Rajasthan’s village, her main aim was to spread the awareness about education and hygiene and also takes part in the campaigns against the evil practices of the society.
  • She was engaged in a social development programme whose main aim was to stop child marriages in a village and this programme was initiated by the Rajasthan’s government. 
  • As a part of her work, she came forward to cease the marriage of the Gujjar family’s daughter, who was only one year old. Bhanwari Devi puts all the possible efforts in terminating the marriage but she failed to stop the marriage from happening because very powerful politicians and famous people were involved in the marriage.
  • Bhanwari Devi was not was not condoned for her fault and after some time in 1992, she was gang raped by five members of that (Gujjar) family in front of her husband.
  • She filed a case against all those five persons, but police officers were not taking her case seriously and after fifty two hours the complaint was filed. Also her medical examination was conducted very late.
  • When the case reached the trail court, the court discharge all the five accused stating that it is impossible for the women to be gang raped in presence of her husband and that the official persons cannot be a part of such acts.
  • After the judgement of trail court, various rallies and protests take place by public and social working organisations demanding the justice to Bhanwari Devi. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court by a group of NGOs who worked for the security of women demanding the appropriate punishment to the accused persons of gang rape.
  • “Vishakha” is the name given to the public interest litigation filed by the non- profit organisation contended that the fundamental rights of Bhanwari Devi were infringed. 
  • They also demanded certain set of guidelines for the security of women at workplace because the employer of Bhanwari Devi refuses to take any responsibility in spite of the reason that she was raped due to performance of her employment.

Issues raised in the case were: (a) Whether sexual harassment at workplace amounts to the violation of Fundamental Rights given under Article 14, 19 and 21?

(b) Whether it is the responsibility of the employer to prevent sexual harassment at workplace?

Judgement: The judgement of Vishakha’s case was delivered by the bench of three judges namely Chief Justice J.S.Verma, Justice B.N.Kripal and Justice Sujata Manihar. The court held that sexual harassment leads to the violation of the Fundamental Rights as provided under Article 14, 19 and 21 of Indian Constitution. Additionally it was contended by the court that it is also the prior responsibility of the employer to prevent the sexual harassment at workplace. There should be availability of safe and secure working environment at workplace is the basic requirement of every person. 

The court made certain guidelines called as “Vishakha guidelines” for the safety of women at workplace so that they can work in the secure environment without any fear. 

The Vishakha Guidelines: The court made guidelines to protect the women at their workplace which were named as “Vishakha Guidelines” and it is implemented by the Supreme Court in 1997.

Objectives and requirements of the Vishakha Guidelines: These guidelines were implemented because of the increasing cases related to sexual harassment and number of rallies and protests that takes place by various social working groups. At that time the legal system was not strong enough to protect women at the workplace and the accused of rape and sexual harassment were given just and fair punishments. Additionally, there was no responsibility of employer to provide support and assistance to his employee who has been sexually harassed. To avoid any kind of liability, employers fired such women victims from the job.

The increasing crimes against the women indicate the urgent need for the new laws that provide strict punishment to offenders and also ensure the safety of women at workplace. Thus, Vishakha Guidelines have been made which will prevent the sexual harassment of women at workplace and those who involve in sexual harassment will be punished severely.

Ingredients of Vishakha Guidelines: The focused features of the guidelines are as follows:

  • The Supreme Court clarifies the meaning of sexual harassment through the guidelines and defines it as any unwelcome gesture, unpleasant taunt \ comment, physical touch or conduct, showing of pornography, making appeals for sex.
  • It is the responsibility of employer to arrange a secure working environment and take measures for each and every member working in the organisation. Employer can make laws in favour of women and take justifiable steps to avoid sexual harassment cases in the company.
  • Spreading awareness in the organization about the sexual harassment is the additional duty of the employee.
  • If any case regarding the act which is punishable under the Indian Penal Code is found, then it is the primary duty of the employer to file a complaint against that employee who is indulged in that act.
  • There should be an Internal Complaint Committee (ICC) in every organisation which should be headed by one woman and more of its members would be women with the third party as NGO.
  • Government held that along with the public sectors, private sectors also have to add all those measures in their rulebook to prevent sexual harassment at workplace.

On the basis of all these guidelines, after seventeen years an act was passed by the government in 2013 which was named as “Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. This act has wider scope than the guidelines but the base was taken from the Vishakha Guidelines.

  • This act come into force on 22.4.2013 and especially aims at the prevention of sexual harassment at workplace. 
  • It directs the employer to set up an Internal Complaint Committee (ICC) in every organisation which should be headed by one senior woman employee and more of its members would be women with the third party as NGO. Local Complaint Committee (LCC) is set up to registered the complaints in absence of Internal Complaint Committee.
  • “Aggrieved woman” consists of all women irrespective of sage, employed or not, organised-unorganised sector and public-private sector.
  • The time limit for the inquiry of complaint is set up in the act and penalties includes fine up to Rs. 50,000

The Constitution of India protects the fundamental rights of equality and liberty of each individual. It is the right of the women to get the secure working environment in which they can work without any fear. Sexual harassment is the rapid growing problem of our society. If it is not controlled then it will become a hindrance in the working of the women due to which the economic condition of our country will also get affected. 

The Bhanwari Devi case is the landmark case which deal with the problem of sexual harassment in our society. A certain set of guidelines namely “Vishakha Guidelines” are made by the Supreme Court to protect the women from sexual harassment at workplace and provide a severe punishment to the offenders. According to these guidelines, employer is directly liable to take certain measures to prevent the sexual harassment in the organisation and ensure the safety of women. Without any doubt we can say that the Vishakha Guidelines and the Act of 2013 proves to be very helpful in preventing the social crime of sexual harassment.

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