Politics: A Workplace within POSH

In the world’s largest democracy, with over 2698 registered political parties; 8 national parties, 52 state parties, numerous regional and local parties, and millions of members across party lines, political parties in India can be categorized as one of the largest unorganized sectors. From the lowest rung of volunteers to the office bearers at the highest level, the scale and strength of individuals involved is colossal. Women’s low participation in political organization and even lower representation in parliament and assemblies continues to remain a challenge not only in India but in most parts of the world. Politics has traditionally been promoted as the territory of men. When women attempt to enter the area of decision-making, including political decision-making by defying patriarchal norms, they face various forms of violence that includes casual sexism, harassment, bias, discrimination, psychological and physical violence etc.1 In many cases, these cases go unreported or unnoticed and don’t receive the attention that they should have received in the first place.

One of the most significant barriers to women in politics is the threat as well as the actual use of violence, and is seen as a common feature in South Asia2.  Various studies showcase that candidates and their families as well as voters have routinely faced violence during elections. For instance, Tamil Nadu’s five times Chief Minister Jayalalitha had faced severe backlash from her party members during her early years in politics. She was humiliated as MGR’s (then CM of the state and leader of AIADMK) body was lying in state in the heritage Rajaji Hall when a DMK leader tried to push her from the rostrum3

According to UN Women, gender-based violence (GBV) refers to “harmful acts directed at an individual or a group of individuals based on their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms. The term is primarily used to underscore the fact that structural, gender-based power differentials place women and girls at risk for multiple forms of violence.” Violence against women and girls is defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women and girls, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”4

Sexual harassment is part of this gender-based violence. It permeates into the sphere of politics. Section 354A of the Indian Penal Code defines sexual harassment as a man committing any physical contact, advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; or demanding or requesting sexual favours; or showing pornography against the will of a woman, or making sexually coloured remarks, shall be guilty of the offence of sexual harassment  (Indian Penal Code).

In 2013, the Indian Parliament enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act (POSH) which is India’s first legislation specifically addressing sexual harassment of women at the workplace. It mandates employers to set up committees in the workplace, or local government officials in case of the informal sector, to hear complaints, conduct inquiries, and recommend action to be taken against perpetrators 5

In 2018, the sharing of stories about sexual harassment which began with the Me Too (or #MeToo) movement, also led to sexual harassment allegations against politicians in India. Several journalists had come forward to accuse MJ Akbar, the then Minister of State for External Affairs of sexual harassment. These and many other allegations brought the question of sexual harassment in political parties to the forefront. The Centre for Accountability and Systematic Change (CASC) had sent a legal notice to Maneka Gandhi, the then Union Minister of Women and Child Development, requesting for political parties to be penalised for failing to protect women as per the law 6. Taking cognizance of the same, Maneka Gandhi had urged all recognised political parties to take immediate action and form an internal complaints committee (ICC) to look into complaints of sexual harassment 7.

According to POSH, employers are bound to protect their employees from sexual harassment. This involves carrying out certain duties, one of which is setting up an Internal Complaints Committees (ICC). The Act mandates that workplaces with more than 10 employees need to set up an ICC8. In India, political parties which are registered under the Societies Registration Act and having more than 10 employees are thus mandated by law to have an Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) under the POSH Act9 .

Even in 2021, we continue to find that most political parties’ function without ICCs. While some parties have formed ICCs to address sexual harassment instances, many others deal with these cases either through their disciplinary committees or through informal mechanisms. According to a national party CPI(M)’s website, they have constituted an ICC that includes external members (the details of whom could be found on their website). In the past, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has claimed to have established a committee10 but no description of such is available on their website. It had earlier been reported that functionaries of the BJP and the Congress had admitted that the parties did not have ICCs and sexual harassment complaints are generally handled by the disciplinary committee. Sometimes the case is registered at the state level and then referred to the party headquarters11. However, All India Professional Congress (the professional wing of Congress) has mandated the constitution of ICC for the organisation but it doesn’t cover the larger organisation of AICC.

If political parties take a stand against sexual harassment and violence against women in politics as a whole, it would be a step towards encouraging more women to join politics and attain leadership positions. People and party members need to recognise that political parties are workplaces and the implementation of POSH is essential. A massive number of volunteers are also part of the workforce of these parties and the parties need to acknowledge the volunteers’ rights under POSH.

The prevention of sexual harassment boils down to the fundamental right to live a dignified life, as enshrined in the Constitution of India. The political parties being an important factor in the democratic process of the nation, therefore, need to acknowledge the seriousness of the matter at hand and constitute an effective ICC with necessary provisions in place. They need to provide POSH training to all their membership cadres, volunteers etc about workplace violence, spread awareness about how people can file complaints and ensure accessibility to the process. 

This process of awareness generation, constituting the ICC, training etc could initially be taken up by the party headquarters and then spread to the local offices. Different parties could be encouraged to come together and adopt a joint code of conduct that would be followed by politicians and all-party workers and volunteers. Another approach to ensure that political spaces become safer spaces for women could involve a mandate by the Election Commission for political parties to constitute ICCs at the time of registration. 

Women continue to remain hesitant about entering politics. This can be seen in their low levels of representation in Indian politics. Currently, only 78 members out of 546 are women in the Indian Parliament. To ensure that women’s right to participate in politics is met, several activists across the globe have demanded legal reforms that formally acknowledge the threats that women face in politics and propose to close existing gaps. For instance, it was due to the efforts of the Association of Local Councilwomen of Bolivia, that Bolivia became one of the first countries to have passed a law that specifically prohibits and criminalises violence against women in politics12. The law covers physical and psychological violence and harassment and lays down various administrative, penal and constitutional sanctions13. This has bolstered action across the region and countries like Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica have proposed different laws in their parliaments, though they are yet to pass. It is time that Indian women leaders, women’s collectives and advocacy groups, gender-activists from across political parties and ideological spectrum come together to demand regulations that provide a safer environment to women and handle the issue of violence against women in politics in an equitable and just manner. 

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.

Bibliography:

  1. South Asia Partnership International. (2006). Violence Against Women in Politics: Surveillance System.
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  10. Nath, D. (2018, October 22). Our ICC has taken action against harassers: AAP. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/our-icc-has-taken-action-against-harassers-aap/article25281913.ece
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