Posted on: December 4, 2013

Though the Supreme Court had issued guidelines to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace 16 years ago, it did not implement them in its own precincts until last week.

Let’s hear it for Bhanwari Devi. Not many would remember the village-level social worker of Rajasthan. Over 20 years ago, she sought to stop the marriage of an infant. The village strongmen resented the move, and she was raped by a group of men in 2002 in front of her husband when they were working in the fields. Bhanwari Devi dragged the men to court — and it was this case, fought under a women’s group called Vishaka, which led to the formulation of guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment.

Last week, 16 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Vishaka judgment, the apex court announced the setting up of a 10-member committee headed by Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai to deal with complaints of sexual harassment within its precincts. The move may be late, but is still an important step for gender justice in the legal world.

That courts and chambers are not safe for women became apparent a few weeks ago when a young woman — a former student of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) — blogged that she had been sexually harassed by a retired Supreme Court judge when she was interning in his office last year. Subsequently, a three-member committee was formed to look into her charges, but the graduate is clearly not happy. She said in an interview earlier this week that she felt “humiliated” and had to constantly justify that she was not lying. Last week, Justice A.K. Ganguly was named as the person who had allegedly harassed the intern.

The case certainly underlines the need for reform in legal circles. “There is a dominant culture of sexism in the profession, and about certain peculiarities in its structure that make speaking out very difficult,” says Mihira Sood, a graduate from Hyderabad’s Nalsar University of Law. Sood, who is now studying in Columbia, had recently blogged that she had also been harassed by a lawyer. “It is a conservative profession, where people are inherently reluctant to rock the boat,” she says.

The NUJS alumna wrote in her blog that she had heard of three other cases [of sexual harassment]. “And I know of at least four other girls who’ve faced harassment from other judges…” Her claim was corroborated when another law student from NUJS wrote on Facebook that she too had been at the receiving end of “unsolicited sexual advance more than once” by the same judge.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover stresses that it’s not just lawyers who are harassed, but interns, litigants and clerks as well.

But among the most vulnerable are young women lawyers who practise in courts. “Many have quit their jobs because of this, or moved away from litigation to corporate counsel jobs in large firms where there is more regulation and accountability,” Sood says in an email interview to The Telegraph. “Many women I know who want to litigate are discouraged by their parents from doing so for this reason. Very often the parents are themselves part of the profession so they have seen it for themselves.”

Everybody in legal circles has an incident to relate on sexual harassment. In March this year, a woman advocate was secretly filmed while she was in a toilet in the old lawyers’ chamber building inside the Delhi High Court premises. And a lawyer cites the case of a 27-year-old woman lawyer who was stalked by her male colleague. He sent her obscene text messages and once even dropped in at her house.

In the corridors of courts, tales of harassment by lawyers and judges of juniors are whispered — but seldom aired.

“There is a strong network which is very hierarchical. Juniors and interns have absolutely no voice. Seniors tend to be very powerful, connected not just with other lawyers but also with judges and politicians, which makes it more intimidating to speak out,” Sood stresses.

Legal insiders point out that the profession — unlike say fields such as medicine and engineering — needs individual mentoring. A junior often has to intern with a senior. “Assisting a judge or a senior advocate is always good for the career of budding lawyers because the same judge or advocate can recommend them to others,” says the former dean of Delhi University’s law faculty, Rajiv Khanna.

Justice A.K. Ganguly

Often, in such circumstances, it is difficult for a young lawyer to speak out because her career is at stake. “How many girls can afford to take that risk in a competitive world like this,” Khanna asks.

A few changes are taking place now — mainly because scores of young graduates from prestigious new law schools are entering the field. They are articulate, aware and assertive, and not willing to take harassment without a fight. “She (the NUJS alumna) has shown immense courage to talk about the incident,” NUJS registrar Surojit C. Mukhopadhyay says.

Mumbai-based advocate Anand Grover, too, points out that women lawyers are putting up a fight. “It is not easy for women to stand out bravely in this male-chauvinistic profession but they are doing so,” he says.

It is expected that the new 10-member SC committee will work towards battling sexual harassment. The Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee (GSICC) will hear complaints against all kinds of sexual harassment. A complaint has to be inquired into and the inquiry report acted upon by GSICC within 45 days of completion of inquiry. If found guilty, an advocate would be barred from entering the Supreme Court’s premises for a period that can extend up to a year and face other forms of punishment.

“These cases are so common that only a strong mechanism like this can help address the issue,” says advocate Binu Tamta, who filed the petition to implement the Vishaka judgment in the judiciary.

Meanwhile, law schools are doing their bit too. “We plan to give a written advisory to our students on guidelines to be followed when they go out for internships,” Mukhopadhyay says. “We also plan to set up a panel of faculty members who can be contacted anytime by students if anything unpleasant happens to them during the internship. It will be our job to help them.”


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  • ranginee09: It is clear, justice eludes many but to imprison a man for his humanitarian deeds in a civilised society leaves an permanent blotch in our criminal ju
  • ranginee09: The article points-out a very pertinent social ill. Social ostracisation in childhood may have unwanted results later in life. A child victim is not a
  • Seeker and her search: Thanks for reading, Anne. Yes, I know what you are saying.
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