This article on ‘Vishakha and Others v State of Rajasthan’ was written by Farhat Sultana, an intern at Legal Upanishad.
The historic judgement in the Vishakha case in Indian law has had a significant impact on women’s rights and workplace safety. In 1992, the Supreme Court of India accepted a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) from a group of social workers seeking guidelines to prevent sexual harassment of women at work. The case gathered traction after a horrible incidence of sexual assault on a social worker in Rajasthan.
The Supreme Court’s 1997 ruling in the Vishakha case defined workplace sexual harassment and established standards for preventing and addressing such events. It was a huge step in the right direction towards assuring women’s safety in the workplace and making it a safe place for them to work. Since then, the case has had a significant impact on Indian society and helped to shape the conversation on sexual harassment in the workplace.
This article will provide a comprehensive overview of the Vishakha case, including its background, key arguments presented by the parties involved, and the decision of the Supreme Court. It will also delve into the implications of the case, criticisms and controversies surrounding the Vishakha guidelines, and the way forward for women’s safety in the workplace.
II. Brief history of sexual harassment in India
In India, there has always been a problem with sexual harassment, and many cases are recorded yearly. Women have experienced harassment in a variety of ways, including rape, molestation, sexual remarks, and groping. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that workplace sexual harassment came to light and started to be addressed by the legal system.
Before the landmark Vishakha case, sexual harassment in India was not properly defined nor made illegal. However, the Indian Evidence Act and the Indian Penal Code also included sections that addressed sexual offences, such as sexual harassment. However, these regulations did not offer any standards or procedures for handling claims of sexual harassment at work.
A landmark decision was made by the Supreme Court of India in the matter of Vishakha and Others v. State of Rajasthan in 1997. The Vishakha Guidelines were a set of rules that included things like creating a complaints committee, adopting a code of conduct, and offering awareness and training programmes. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, later included these rules. Additionally, it emphasised the necessity of stronger gender equality and the defence of women’s rights in India.
III. The Case
The Vishakha and Others v. State of Rajasthan case, which created the first legal definition of sexual harassment and offered rules for preventing and dealing with it in the workplace, is a landmark decision in Indian law. In reaction to the gang rape of a social worker named Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan in 1992, many women’s rights organisations filed the case, which the Supreme Court of India heard in 1997.
Facts of the case:
Social worker Bhanwari Devi was employed by the Women Development Programme of the Rajasthan State Government. She attempted to prevent child marriage in 1992, at which point five males who belonged to the upper caste class allegedly gang-raped her. She called the police after the incident, but the defendants were found not guilty, leading the community to shun Devi and her family. Women’s rights organisations began calling for action to stop future occurrences of this kind after Devi’s case gained widespread notice.
Arguments presented by the parties involved:
Several women’s rights organisations, including Vishakha and others, filed petitions in this case, claiming that no law in India protected against workplace sexual harassment. They argued that since no such law existed, women were left open to sexual exploitation and that the state was obligated to defend their rights. The State of Rajasthan was one of the respondents, and it maintained that the occurrence involving Bhanwari Devi was an isolated one and that there were sufficient laws and regulations in place to handle such cases.
The decision of the Supreme Court:
The Supreme Court of India ruled in a historic decision that sexual harassment at work violated a woman’s fundamental right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The court additionally stated that there was a need for comprehensive guidelines to prevent and handle sexual harassment in the workplace and that the current rules and regulations were insufficient to address the problem.
The Vishakha Guidelines were subsequently released by the court, and they defined sexual harassment and offered a framework for handling complaints. The rules mandated that all employers establish a procedure for handling grievances, which included appointing a complaints committee, providing a secure and encouraging atmosphere for complainants, and imposing penalties. In accordance with the recommendations, businesses must also offer their staff training and programmes that raise awareness of the problem of sexual harassment.
Due to the lack of a supporting legal framework, the Vishakha Guidelines were not immediately enforceable. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 replaced the previous regulations and offered a legislative framework for handling sexual harassment in the workplace, although they were ultimately enshrined in that law.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which made the rules legally enforceable and broadened its coverage to include all workplaces in India, was passed as a result of the case’s precedent-setting nature.
IV. Implications of the Case
Creation of the Vishakha Guidelines:
The Vishakha Guidelines for preventing and dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace were developed as a result of the historic ruling in the Vishakha case. The rules established a framework for businesses to stop, forbid, and address workplace sexual harassment. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, later included the guidelines. The Vishakha Guidelines and the following statute dramatically enhanced India’s institutional and legal framework for preventing and combating workplace sexual harassment.
Impact on workplace sexual harassment:
The Vishakha case significantly altered India’s perception of the problem of workplace sexual harassment. It raised awareness about the problem and the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace. The case also paved the way for the categorization of sexual harassment as a fundamental right infringement against women. Employers are required by the guidelines and ensuing law to prevent and handle workplace sexual harassment. The case has also given women the confidence to report instances of sexual harassment and request reparation.
Importance of the case for women’s rights in India:
A crucial turning point for women’s rights in India was the Vishakha case. It acknowledged that, in breach of the Indian Constitution, sexual harassment violates the fundamental rights of women. The case also established standards for businesses to follow in order to provide a secure and respectful workplace for women. Women now can report sexual harassment at work and seek remedies thanks to the case and the statute that followed. The Vishakha case significantly contributed to women having the confidence to stand up for their rights and demand a workplace that is courteous and safe.
V. Criticism and Challenges
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision, the Vishakha Guidelines, sought to address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. The recommendations have, however, come under fire for a number of different reasons. Others have expressed worries about the standards’ improper application and enforcement, while some have contended that the guidelines do not go far enough in protecting victims of sexual harassment.
Challenges in implementing the guidelines:
The lack of knowledge among employees and employers about the Vishakha Guidelines has been one of the biggest obstacles to their implementation. The guidelines also mandate the creation of Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs), which can be challenging to set up and sustain in companies. The effectiveness of the ICCs in looking into sexual harassment claims has also been under criticism.
VI. The Way Forward
Changes brought by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013:
A thorough framework for dealing with workplace sexual harassment was created by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, which was passed in 2013. It establishes severe penalties for non-compliance and requires all businesses to set up an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).
Future Prospects for Women’s Safety in the Workplace:
Employers, policymakers, and society as a whole must continue to make efforts to improve women’s safety in the workplace. Crucial efforts include creating a climate of zero tolerance for sexual harassment, bolstering the legal system, and raising awareness and sensitization. All workers may work in secure and welcoming environments by investing in gender-sensitive training and capacity building for employers, staff, and ICCs.
Finally, the Supreme Court of India’s ruling in the Vishakha case, which established rules to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, was a watershed moment. As a result of the case, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, was enacted. This lawsuit was critical in addressing the issue of workplace harassment and ensuring that women in India had a safe working environment.
- Aadish Goel, Vishaka and Others vs the State of Rajasthan: The Importance of Due Process and Its Effectiveness in Addressing Sexual Harassment, SSRN, 14 June 2021, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3859309
- Rajeshwari Rajesh, Case Summary: Vishaka & Ors v. State of Rajasthan & Ors (1997) | Vishaka Guidelines | Sexual harassment of women in the workplace, Legal Bites, 20 March 2023, available at: https://www.legalbites.in/vishaka-ors-v-state-of-rajasthan-1997/
- S. Sujitha, Case comment : Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan, iPleaders Blog, 31 July 2021, available at: https://blog.ipleaders.in/case-comment-vishaka-vs-state-rajasthan/