Breaking the Silence: Sexual Harassment at Workplace and India's Progress Towards a Safe and Inclusive Work Environment

  • Satya Muley
  • 09:22 PM, 26 Jun 2023

Read Time: 14 minutes



Incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace have been reported, and in some cases, unreported, since time immemorial. In the 20th century, women empowerment gained momentum, and individuals of all genders were able to work at modern workplaces such as government offices, banks, corporate offices, restaurants, hotels, and so on.

With increased participation of women in the workplace, more and more incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace started taking place. Although individuals of all genders can become victims of sexual harassment at the workplace, mostly, females have been at the receiving end of such harassment. Most victims prefer to keep silent and until recently, even the laws were not very elaborate about such offenses due to societal pressures.

Incidents of sexual harassment have been reported from all quarters, such as Presidential offices, Supreme Courts of many nations, several multinational companies, entertainment industry, and so on.

What is Sexual Harassment at Workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace can take various forms and can occur in different ways. Following are some examples of sexual harassment at the workplace:

1. Request for sexual favors: This happens mainly when a person in a position of power or authority requests sexual favors in exchange for employment benefits.

2. Unwanted sexual advances: This includes unwelcome physical contact such as touching, hugging, or kissing without consent, making inappropriate comments or gestures of sexual nature.

3. Offensive remarks or jokes: It involves making sexually explicit comments, telling offensive jokes, or engaging in conversations that are sexually suggestive or demeaning.

4. Displaying explicit materials: Sharing or displaying explicit images, videos, or other materials of a sexual nature in the workplace that can create a hostile or uncomfortable environment.

5. Sexual innuendos and comments: This involves making persistent or repeated remarks about the person’s body, appearance, or clothing that are of sexual nature, which can create an embarrassing work environment.

6. Invasion of personal space: This can include standing too close, brushing against another person intentionally in a sexual manner, and can be considered sexual harassment.

7. Cyber harassment: Sending unwanted sexual messages, explicit emails, or engaging in online stalking or harassment through social media platforms related to work can also constitute sexual harassment.

8. Retaliation for rejecting advances: Negative consequences, such as demotion or exclusion from work-related activities as a result of rejecting unwanted sexual advances, can be considered sexual harassment.

The Indian Workspace and Sexual Harassment

Post-independence, India has seen very slow progress in women's empowerment. It was very rare or exceptional for women to become financially independent and work in prominent positions in various categories of organizations until almost 1970.

From the 1980s, we have seen many employment opportunities being taken up by females, not only in government but also in the private sector. From the 1990s, we have seen females even in leadership positions and in roles which were traditionally meant for only men, such as Pilots of aircraft, CEOs of private organizations, Armed Forces, and so on.

With such a transformation in gender composition at Indian workplaces, there have been a lot of incidents of sexual harassment at workplaces in India, some of them even involving crimes of heinous nature such as rape and murder.

One notable example is that of Bhanwari Devi, who used to work with an NGO to prevent child marriages. In 1990, she did a commendable job of trying to prevent a child marriage, but as a matter of revenge, she was gang-raped by five influential people of a village in Rajasthan in the presence of her husband. The accused were acquitted at lower courts due to lack of evidence, but the victim and her supporters moved to the Supreme Court of India by way of PIL to address the issue of sexual harassment of women at the workplace. The landmark PIL was decided in 1997 with the Supreme Court issuing the Vishakha guidelines.

Vishakha Guidelines and Legal Provisions in India

The PIL Vishakha & Ors Vs. State of Rajasthan, was specifically filed in the Supreme Court of India to seek justice for victims like Bhanwari Devi who face sexual harassment in the course of their function or at their workplace. The Supreme Court held that the fundamental rights of females under Articles 14 (Equality), 15 (Non-discrimination on the ground of gender, among other aspects), 19 (1)(g) (Right to practice any profession, occupation, trade or business) and 21 (Protection of Life and liberty) are violated by the act of sexual harassment at the workplace.

In 2017, the Supreme Court brought out the Vishakha guidelines for the protection of women at their workplaces and providing a safer working environment for women.

For the first time in India, the Vishakha guidelines provided the definition of ‘Sexual harassment at the workplace,' the need for safe workplace, duty of the employer to file a complaint under the Indian Penal Code. The guidelines also make it mandatory for every organization to form a ‘Complaint redressal committee.' A duty was cast upon the employer to spread awareness about the subject. Finally, a duty was also cast upon the Union Government to enact the necessary legislation to safeguard women from sexual harassment at the workplace.

As a result, the Sexual harassment of women at the workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013. The new act passed in 2013 broadens the definition of aggrieved women to involve women of all ages, in order to suit the modern-day conditions. It also broadens the scope of the term workplace, which was earlier limited only to the traditional office set-up.


It is said that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls. Females in India have suffered from sexual harassment at the workplace to a large extent. People often quit their employment, or their partners do not wish them to continue working, resulting in deprivation of the opportunity to live their life to the fullest.

Though the scenario is changing fast, it is a fact that many victims of sexual harassment prefer not to report their experiences due to various pressures. Organizations are changing, and we see many organizations explicitly implementing zero tolerance towards sexual harassment at the workplace. Such policies are also of an inclusive nature, as individuals of the LGBTQ community are also welcome to work in several organizations and they, too, face such harassment and are in need of prevention and protection from harassment.

Moving ahead, women and girls should become more and more bold, and speak out about any such harassment faced. Organizations that default in supporting the victims are also liable to be punished. Finally, it is society's collective duty and responsibility to provide a safe and conducive work environment for all genders.



Views of the author are personal. Lawbeat does not endorse them. Satya Muley is an Advocate practicing in Bombay High Court, also the Founder of Law firm – Satya Muley & Co.