Get schooled on sexual harassment laws in India from lawyer Karuna Nundy
Eminent lawyer Karuna Nundy took up law by chance. Born to parents, who were both working in leadership roles, Karuna studied Economics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Then she went on to become a TV journalist at the age of 19. Journalism didn’t empower her enough she says. A few strong legal stories kindled her interest into law and she applied for Cambridge and got through.
Karuna revealed that two investigative stories during her term as a journalist had real impact on her, urging her to take up law as a profession.
“Still I wasn’t quite sure so I applied for film school journalism and law school, Cambridge came through first and I went to law school in Columbia in New York. I gave the bar exam, worked for United Nations for a bit before moving back to India about 15 years ago,” she says.
At the Cambridge University, Karuna won many accolades including Emmeline Pankhurst Prize, the Amy Cohen Awards and the Becker Studentship. And today, it has been over a decade and a half she has been litigating in India. Apart from fighting big cases in the court, she has been deeply involved in the discourse of anti rape law, which was amended in 2013.
The amendment to the Anti Rape Law was driven by a coalition of lawyers and activists. Additionally an amendment that came about was section 166A which says that criminal proceedings can be filed against a police officer or other public official who fails to register an FIR when a sexual complaint is made.
“There is a requirement under the prevention of sexual harassment act in every company to have a policy that addresses this issue, to have workshops where people understand the policy and the law and also to have a complaints committee which is a redressal mechanism”
Not just that, she has also played a vital role in formulating the Justice Verma Committee Report that came into existence to review laws pertaining to crime against women.
ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT LAWS IN THE COUNTRY
She talked at length about the sexual harassment law in the Indian constitution and described it for all of us.
“There are two aspects of it- first is sexual harassment at the workplace and in-house mechanism at the workplace and the second are the criminal laws. It is excellent that the in-house mechanism exist at the workplace. There is a requirement under the prevention of sexual harassment act in every company to have a policy that addresses this issue, to have workshops where people understand the policy and the law and also to have a complaints committee which is a redressal mechanism. It is not a bad structure at all.”
PROBLEMS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
However there are problems with it, she added. “The International Criminal Court (ICC) tend somewhat weigh in favour of the company liability because everyone wants to prevent the company in power. The misconception here is that company liability will be prevented by brushing things under the carpet as opposed to following the policy and actually doing the right thing which is something that prevents senior management and protects the company itself as a legal entity. This is something that is very crucial to understand for stakeholders having shares in public companies.”
Karuna also advises many companies in bringing equality at the workplace and so she observes how some companies are moving ahead of the curve. Taking the example of Penguin, she echoed that sexual harassment is just one aspect of it and that companies are now bringing in equality policies.
To describe this, the lawyer, who is working on a bill of rights for women called the Womanifesto, took an example of a male boss and a female employee, “If a male boss touches his female employee in a sexual manner. Now this is something that is actionable, you can take it to the ICC. But if a male boss constantly tells off his female employee pointing towards her gender in a sexist manner and says that she does not deserve to be promoted because of it, a woman only has informal mechanism to raise this issue.”
“I think a lot of women get blamed for not coming forward. And while it is true that the legal system is not the easiest, it is also often not”
WHY WOMEN DON’T COME FORWARD
Even after knowing all the laws around sexual harassment, Karuna is well aware of the fact that not many women come forward to file complaints. About this, she believes, “I think a lot of women get blamed for not coming forward. And while it is true that the legal system is not the easiest, it is also often not. I was dealing with a case recently and the SHO was a woman, the IO was a woman, judge was a woman and the assistant public prosecutor was also a woman and they were all quite progressive.”
Lastly, Karuna called the woman who came forward and filed a complaint in the recent TVF sexual harassment case against the company’s CEO “a hero” for doing so. “The onus is now on the legal system to make sure that justice is done,” commented the lawyer on the high profile case.
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