EXPLAINED: What is sexual harassment, and how to identify it

Representative Photo.

With the start of a much needed storm calling out sexual harassment predators and deep-rooted patriarchal illusions, the world has galloped forward into achieving a greater understanding of harassment and evolving into a sensitized and well-informed individual who understands what the concept of ‘space’ and ‘respect’ entails, especially while dealing with the opposite sex.

But as is the norm, with great change comes powerful opposition towards it.

History has stood witness to countless revolutions withstanding brutal jabs to its core values and teaching us that a strong movement is only as strong as the people who lead it.

The powerful opposition has reared its critical eye towards the viral ‘#MeToo’ movement and has delivered its first set of arguments against it, also including deprecating memes.

Pertinently, when something, like a cause, or a movement picks up mass support, relevancy and authenticity are lost in different interpretations and misconceptions of the masses.

This is an opportune moment for ideologies unjustifiably against the cause to misconstrue it, thus leading genuine innocents caught in the crossfire to term it as a ‘smear campaign’, as is the case with Metoo.

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What is Sexual Harassment?

To understand and realize what ‘sexual harassment’ actually entails, we turn back in time and observe the cause from where it started to gain mileage on a political ground, namely, policies.


What the law says:

The first SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT WORKPLACE ACT was passed in 2013.

An Act to provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

The act connects sexual harassment of women at workplaces with the violation of fundamental rights of women coming under Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution of India.

The act defines sexual harassment as ‘unwelcome acts or behavior’ which include physical contact, advances, demand or request for sexual favors, making sexually colored remarks, showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

The act goes on to define the term in a ‘workplace’.

The second chapter of the Act looks at the responsibility of constituting an Internal Complaints Committee in every workplace. It states that ‘at least one-half of the total Members so nominated shall be women’.

The Act also stresses on the need of a Local Complaints Committee for every district, and states how, in the event of a sexual harassment complaint, monetary settlement between the victim and the perpetrator will not be accepted as a basis of conciliation.

The Act also provides both the Internal Committee and the Local Committee with the same powers as vested in a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.

[Read the full Act here.]


The University Grants Commission of India has published a handbook that walks one through the concept of sexual harassment, ‘listing examples of behaviors through which a woman can experience possible professional and personal harm.

It also presents the user with scenarios from across‐ section of work contexts to build clarity on different forms of sexual harassment as identified under the Act’.

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Simply put, the handbook helps a woman differentiate between sexual harassment and harmless social interaction and clarifies whether, when having been sexually harassed, she can accordingly assess the environment of the workplace and then consider it to come under the Act or not.


Top Indian companies draft Sexual Harassment Policies

Soon, the Act touched down and passed the ball over to leading companies for further development. Below are three companies whose Sexual Harassment Policies further define the Act in their own medium and work environment.

  • Nestle India gives a detailed definition of sexual harassment in this workplace on account of the benefit of slight modification that the Act gives space for.

It separately highlights the responsibilities of a individual and a manager at the workplace to prevent sexual harassment of their colleagues. It complies with the Act’s redressal mechanism of constituting an Internal Complaints Committee.

While coming to the conclusion that the following allegations by the victim are malicious, Nestle India recommends ‘the employer to take action against the woman or the person making the complaint.

The action recommended should be similar to the ones proposed for the respondent in case of substantiated complaints. While deciding malicious intent, the committee should consider that mere inability to substantiate a complaint need not mean malicious intent.

Malicious intent must be clearly established through a separate inquiry’.

Lastly, it provides room for confidentiality with regards to the complainant’s identity, an important clause in the policy which encourages victims who have higher stakes to speak out.

  • Oxfam India in its policy, terms sexual harassment as ‘an act of power, and a public violation of a woman’s dignity that is often trivialized by labeling it an interpersonal transgression’. Its policy is in the same line as Nestle’s but also lists out the accepted determined compensation for sexual harassment.

  • Godrej and Boyce revised its sexual harassment policy in August, 2017.  In addition to similarities with previous two companies’ policies, it included under its redressal mechanism ‘informal resolution options’ which constitute that the victim of the harassment ‘communicate their disapproval and objections immediately to the harasser and request the harasser to behave decently’, after which the concern can be brought to the attention of the Complaints Committee. However, it does take into account the possibility that the victim does not want to directly deal with the harassment.

All three companies give a time period of three months to the complainant to file a complaint following the act of sexual harassment.

Listing the three companies’ sexual harassment policies gives a good idea to the reader on how noted conglomerates or corporations tackle a sensitive and delicate situation and provides ground for the sexual harassment victim to call the harasser out and expect to be delivered justice.

UGC constitutes Sexual Harassment in Higher Educational Institutions Regulations, 2015

In accordance with its powers, the UGC in 2015 set up regulations termed as ‘Prevention, prohibition and redressal of sexual harassment of women employees and students in higher educational institutions Regulations, 2015′.

This applies to higher educational institutions in India and came into effect from May 2016.

While referring to the previous Sexual Harassment Act, 2013, it took the liberty to define ‘campus’ rather than workplace.

It metes out the responsibilities of the Higher Educational Institutions in regards to such cases and refers to its previous order of reconstituting Gender Sensitization Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) as the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).

It places emphasis on protecting research scholars and doctoral candidates since they are ‘particularly vulnerable’. In these institutions, the authority places responsibility regarding such matters to the Executive Authority.

It also directs the institutions to conduct half yearly reviews on ‘the efficacy and implementation of anti-sexual harassment policy’.

It lists out the consequences of the HEI if it fails to comply with any of the above regulations, which include withdrawal of grants, declaring it ineligible, and recommending to the government of India that said institution’s status as a deemed college be withdrawn, among others.


What these policies teach us is a detailed idea of sexual harassment, in and outside workplaces and prevents misuse and misconceptions that can weaken the foundation of the campaign.

#MeToo is for everyone who has been harassed and been a victim and a survivor of such incidents and it is the responsibility of all of us torch holders to keep it safe from any manipulation.


Note: The piece looks at Indian laws which are not directly applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. The UGC guidelines, however, are applicable to Universities under it, including the University of Kashmir.  


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