The recent allegation of sexual harassment against the former Mumbai unit BJP Yuva Morcha chief Ganesh Pandey has highlighted the apathy of the lawmakers towards the implementation of legislation they themselves make. None of the political parties The Sunday Guardian talked to in Mumbai, has an Internal Complaints Committee as mandated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013. In fact, many parties claimed they were not a workplace at all, and so, the law did not apply to them. This has raised questions about the safety of women who have political aspirations and who long to walk the uphill path of obstacles to hold positions of power. Women leaders in politics opined that it was high time parties woke up to the reasons behind the dwindling representation of women in political life.
Appeals by the National Commission for Women and Maharashtra State Commission for Women for the implementation of the law have fallen on deaf ears for over a decade now.
According to recent data released by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in February 2016, India already ranks an abysmal 144th on the global scale of 191 countries in terms of women’s representation in Parliaments. IPU works in close cooperation with the World Bank. According to the data, Indian Parliament’s Lower House has only 12% women representatives. In contrast, Finland has 41.5% women representatives and stands at number 10. Nepal has 29.5% women representatives (47th rank), Afghanistan has 27.7% representation by women (50th rank). China ranks 70th with 23.6% women representatives, Pakistan is 84th with 20.6% women representatives, Bangladesh stands at 88th (20% women representatives).
“The message to women with political aspirations in India is loud and clear, ‘Enter at your own risk. If anything goes wrong with you, there won’t be a systematic mechanism of redressal. Depending on the situation existent during the time of complaint, it will be dealt with in an arbitrary manner.’ The picture is very grim and depressing,” said Anagha Sarpotdar, an expert working in the field of prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace.
“There is no doubt that women party workers are exposed to sexual exploitation. But there is pressure to get tickets. Women know that the male political leaders are the ones who will issue tickets. So, they don’t speak due to this pressure. If you notice, the number of women in active politics has gone down considerably. It is a great concern for women across party lines. They don’t feel safe. Therefore, they stop engaging in political activities. There is a threat to her in her work environment,” senior Congress leader and women’s rights activist Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar told The Sunday Guardian.
Notably, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, states, “Sexual harassment results in violation of the fundamental rights of a woman to equality under Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India and her right to life and to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution and right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business which includes a right to safe environment, free from sexual harassment. The protection against sexual harassment and the right to work with dignity are universally recognised human rights by international conventions and instruments such as Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, which has been ratified on the 25 June 1993 by the Government of India.”
The Parliament passed it with the intention of making women’s work environment safe. “If you look at the spirit of the law, it is applicable to political parties too. After all, women go there to work, though the nature of work is voluntary. It is the political parties’ responsibility to provide safe work environment. Though there is no employer-employee relationship, the political organisations are a workplace nonetheless. The law too doesn’t mandate an employer-employee relationship when it comes to defining the aggrieved,” Anagha said.
“Unfortunately, no political party acknowledges this. The concern has been growing in politics for over a decade and a half now. Women don’t feel safe. So, they stop participating in any voluntary activity. Earlier, there was a line of women’s leadership in the state. Today, only a handful of women leaders can be seen in politics. The political parties need to ask this question to themselves that why do women find it better to stay indoors than to participate in political activities?” asked Samant Prabhavalkar. She pointed out that the rise in the number of women representatives at the local level was also because of the reservation granted to them.
She also said that women’s local leadership rising out of reservation was occupied mainly by women belonging to families of established political leaders. Many women leaders in the state are a part of a political dynasty. “Forget aspiring to become the Chief Minister of a state. Women have to think twice before seeking positions like mayor, councillors, MLAs. The odds are stacked against them,” she said.
Shiv Sena leader Neelam Gorhe too admitted that women are likely to get exposed to such situations once they start climbing the party ranks. “Unfortunately, it also depends on the group one belongs to, and the group the perpetrator of the crime belongs to. Factional politics plays a part during such complaints,” she said. But she also opined that the formation of an Internal Complaints Committee might not be a solution to it. “It is important that women deal with this within the political party and raise their grievances on political platforms within the party,” she said.
Till now, the National Commission for Women and the Maharashtra State Commission for Women have written to all national and regional political parties at least twice to form the Internal Complaints Committee. But the pleas have only fallen on deaf ears.
“In 2002-04, when I was in the Maharashtra State Commission for Women, I had myself written to all the national and regional political parties in the state to implement the Vishakha guidelines and form the Internal Complaints Committee. But not a single party responded,” Samant Prabhavalkar said. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed by Parliament only in 2013. Before that, the Vishakha guidelines issued by Supreme Court were followed to deal with such cases.
After the passage of the law in 2013, the NCW had issued letters to all political parties and held consultations with them. It had also directed all State Commissions for Women to pursue the matter in their states. But the parties refused to budge.
This time on, when the BJP Youth Wing woman leader levelled allegations against Ganesh Pandey, no party left any stones unturned to gain political mileage out of the issue. All the parties protested in the ongoing Assembly session as well. But none of these parties, including the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, have ever formed an Internal Complaints Committee.
None of the party offices the correspondent visited had any public notice for its women party workers about any grievance redressal mechanism for sexual harassment. In fact, a senior leader of the ruling party went on to say that they were not a workplace, so the law was not applicable to them. “There is no employer-employee relationship here. People come to work on voluntary basis,” advocate Madhavi Naik, president of Maharashtra BJP Women’s Wing told the correspondent. Giving information about the current incident where the party’s youth wing’s deputy chief had levelled sexual harassment allegations against the former chief, she said that the BJP had appointed a three-member ad-hoc committee to look into it.
The names of the three members are: Manisha Choudhari, Smita Wagh and Shobhatai Fadnavis. All the three women are BJP leaders. There is no single independent assessor in the committee.
Many women party workers and leaders The Sunday Guardian talked to, admitted that there is a threat of sexual harassment as a woman party worker rises through the cadre. But they emphasised on the need for the party leadership to take note of it.
“In the face of such threats too, the political parties which form the legislature and make laws, do not themselves implement these laws. This only shows a callous attitude of the parties towards their women workers. How seriously do men take women who work in public spaces for political aspirations?” asked Anagha.
Many prominent leaders in the state this correspondent talked to were men. They were not aware of the need for an Internal Complaint Committee under the prevention of sexual harassment legislation. They redirected the queries on redressal of sexual harassment complaints to the women’s wing. When asked if the Nationalist Congress Party had any Internal Complaints Committee in place, NCP chief spokesperson Nawab Malik said, “These things are looked at by our women’s wing. They would know what mechanism has been put in place for it.” He redirected the correspondent to talk to Chitra Wagh, the women’s wing leader of the party. Despite several attempts, she could not be contacted.
While seeking police action against not just Ganesh Pandey but also the state Cabinet Minister Vinod Tawde, Nawab Malik did not even know the mechanism within his own party to deal with complaints of sexual harassment.
When a Congress spokesperson was asked the same question, he said that a general disciplinary committee set up by the party looked at all the disciplinary issues. The Shiv Sena spokesperson said his party does not believe in committees and paperwork. “We only have the orders of our leaders. Uddhav Thackeray and Aditya Thackeray personally look into any such allegations,” he said. It is difficult to know how a grassroots woman party worker can reach top leaders with her grievances.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed by Parliament in 2013 after immense lobbying by women’s groups. Activists working in the field have maintained that even after the passing of the law, itsd implementation has been shoddy. But that the very lawmakers who pass legislation for the safety of women are trying to squirm away from its implementation is a new low, they said.
Not just that, it goes against India’s position at international level. India is a signatory of the UN Agenda 2030 which consists of Sustainable Development Goals. India has committed to ensuring women’s participation in State-building. Agenda 2030 spells out 17 goals. One of them is the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls.
“To ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life,” the document elaborating on Sustainable Development Goals states.
It further says, “Realizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution to progress across all the Goals and targets. The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities. Women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making at all levels.” India had adopted the Sustainable Development agenda last year.