The High Court on Thursday laid down a set of guidelines, including installation of complaint centres headed by women, to prevent sexual harassment of women and girls at educational institutions, offices, factories and other workplaces.
The High Court bench of Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain and Justice Quamrul Islam Siddiqui issued the directives after the final hearing of a public interest litigation writ petition filed by the Bangladesh Jatiya Mahila Ainjibi Samity on August 7, 2008.
The guidelines are as follows: formation of anti-harassment committees with a minimum of five members, most of whom have to be women, in every institution, along with a complaint centre; complaints can be lodged through any law-enforcer or lawyer; women can file their complaints with the complaint centre or the committee separately; identities of complainant and accused should not be disclosed till the allegation is proved to be true; security of complainant has to be ensured; it must be ensured that no female complainant faces any hostility; women shall not be placed in a disadvantaged position in comparison to male colleagues; information on sexual harassment should be circulated through proper forum.
The government has been asked to treat the guidelines as law until necessary laws are enacted by the parliament on the basis of the guidelines, said the court.
The court imposed the guidelines on the respondents: the law secretary, women and children affairs secretary, education secretary, labour secretary, University Grants Commission, authorities of Dhaka University and Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, police, Bangladesh Bar Council and the information ministry.
‘Any kind of provocation through phone calls or e-mail, lewd gestures, showing of pornography, lurid stares, physical contact or molestation, stalking, vulgar sounds or any display of a derogatory nature will be tantamount to sexual misdemeanour,’ said the court.
The court also said that eve-teasing through email or telephone amounts to criminal acts. It prohibited both mental and physical harassment.
The same court on August, 7, 2008 asked the respondents to explain in a week their failure to punish or take action against those who sexually harass women and girls in workplace, educational institutions and other places.
Moving the petition, the petitioner’s counsel Fawzia Karim told the court that the offences had been rampant and the victims could not make any complaints in the absence of any law or procedure to address sexual harassment.
She also said that the writ petition was filed with the High Court as the issue of sexual harassment, especially in the educational institutions, had became the ‘talk of the country’. The University Grants Commission formed a committee and drafted a set of guidelines on October, 7, 2008, and named it ‘Guidelines to combat sexual harassment in educational institutes and workplaces 2008.’
‘The court is the appropriate forum to provide protection for human rights, especially to protect women and children from sexual harassment by providing the necessary guidelines,’ she argued.
Salma Ali, who is also president of the Jatiya Mahila Ainjibi Samity, said, ‘Sexually suggestive remarks made directly or on the phone, indecent email, indecent looks and calling someone ‘sundori’ [beautiful] in a bad sense will be treated as sexual harassment.’
She also said that the court’s ‘revolutionary’ verdict would work as an amulet in preventing sexual harassment.
The punishment for sexual harassment can be both fine and imprisonment, said Fawzia Karim, the petitioner’s lawyer.
Rights defenders and campaigners against sexual harassment on Thursday hailed the High Court’s verdict setting a guideline to deal with the issue and making it mandatory for all to go by the guideline till a law was enacted.
The High Court laid down a set of guidelines to prevent sexual harassment of women and children at workplaces, educational institutions and on the streets defining the harassment and said compliance of the guidelines was mandatory until those were passed into a law in parliament.
Writer and anthropologist Rahnuma Ahmed described the verdict a major victory of the long struggle against sexual harassment and called for making it into a law immediately.
‘The verdict has recognised the rationale of the struggle of women but still we have to go a long way,’ she said.
Rahnuma said that before enacting the law, views of women from every stratum of the society, including the working class, should be taken into account.
Vocalist Krishnakali viewed that mere court verdicts or enactment of laws would not be enough to stop harassment of women. She stressed the need for proper political approach to change the mindset of the society. ‘I do not think much could be achieved by simply enacting laws and keeping the society as it is. The political structure of a country defines the character of an individual. So, the structure should be altered to achieve the goal,’ she said.
Anu Muhammad, a professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University, said such guidelines should have set much earlier. ‘However, we now have a guideline and look forward to a law,’ he said and recalled that a draft guideline in this regard was set by teachers of his university which was later adopted by the University Grants Commission.
Ganasanghati Andolan central coordinator Zonayed Saki said the guideline was the result of a long struggle…The High Court has accepted the rationale of the struggle.
‘But the more important thing is implementation of such guidelines or laws. When the state itself patronises patriarchal attitudes and thoughts, doubts remain whether the verdict could be implemented. We think it needs more struggle to achieve the goal,’ he said.
Rights watchdog Odhikar secretary Adilur Rahman, also a former deputy attorney general, said the High Court verdict was a very positive development as it would prevent tendency, especially among the youths, to violate individual rights. He said the rights groups had much to do in implementation of the verdict.
Swadhin Sen, an assistant professor at Jahangirnagar University, hailed the verdict but said he preferred separate guidelines for different sectors to a uniform guideline.
Masuda Munmun, a student of English at East West University, observed that the court verdict would safeguard women and girls from harassment.
Source: The Daily Star, 15 May 2009