The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act was passed in 2013. The Act aims to provide legal recourse to women subject to sexual harassment in the Institutions that employ them. Employers are obliged to maintain a work environment that actively discourages such harassment. Under the Act, it is made compulsory for all public and private employers to set up a committee to accept, and conduct inquiries into, complaints by female employees.
Faculty, staff, research scholars and students of educational institutions are also covered under this Act. The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at NIT Trichy was set up in accordance to the specifications of this Act in 2013.
Following is a list of the current members (at the time of this interview) of the ICC, along with their designations.
- Presiding Officer: Dr. Meera S. Begum, Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering
- Member: Dr. M. Venkata Kirthiga, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering
- Member: Dr. R. Tamil Selvi, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics
- Member: Mrs. V. Venkatalakshmi, Senior Superintendent
- External Member: Mrs. Krishnaveni Sekar, Senior DGM (HRM), BHEL, Trichy
- Member (Ex-Officio): Senior Vigilance Officer
- Member (Ex-Officio): Registrar
How does one file a complaint with the ICC and what happens once the complaint is filed?
Dr. M. Venkata Kirthiga: The written complaint is to be filed with any of the ICC members. If not, the complaint can be addressed to the Director, or Dean Students’ Welfare or the HoD, which will be then forwarded to the ICC. Being confidential, the complaint is sealed and handed over to a member of the ICC.
Firstly, the complaint will be analysed by ICC members to verify whether it is a case of sexual harassment. If not, ICC is not empowered to deal with it. ICC meeting with the committee members should take place within 2 days of receiving the complaint. The meetings will be video-graphed and the minutes of the meeting are drafted. An enquiry will be conducted with both the complainant and the respondent.
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: The Sexual Harassment Act norms dictate that one should not come to a conclusion immediately. Both parties are allowed to present their perspectives and an inquiry is conducted with a minimum of 3 sittings to find the truth. For example, if a girl lodges a complaint against a male member (student, faculty, non-teaching staff etc) an inquiry is first held for the complainant, after which the respondent is allowed to defend himself. If the respondent denies the allegations, then both the parties are given a chance to produce a witness. Finally based on the information, the committee submits a report with its recommendations. The ICC is only empowered to give recommendations, which can range from a warning to termination.
Dr. M.Venkata Kirthiga: The severity of the recommendation in the case of sexual harassment does not depend on the action, but rather on how it is perceived by the victim. The person who has lodged the complaint is always consulted before making any recommendations.
How do you deal with complaints of sexual harassment against outsiders?
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: The ICC can only take up cases of sexual harassment which happen within the campus. If the respondent is not a member of this campus, such cases are generally reported to the police.
Does the ICC make an annual report of the cases that have been dealt with?
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: An annual report is prepared and submitted to the ministry, without mentioning the names of the people involved. It generally contains information on number and types of cases dealt with and the recommendations given in each case.
Have any steps been taken to publicize the presence of this committee and its functioning on campus – for example, general awareness posters like the ones put up by the anti-ragging cell?
Dr. M.Venkata Kirthiga: We were planning to put up boards regarding sexual harassment like the ones that exist for anti-ragging. But in the case of sexual harassment, it can’t be generalized by saying that if you sexually harass someone, this is the punishment. Punishment can vary on a case-to-case basis.
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: Boards carrying the slogan “Zero tolerance to sexual harassment” were displayed throughout the campus. We are planning to display awareness based boards. We are also planning to conduct a workshop for the different stakeholders of NITT.
Can you give us a general idea about the kinds of cases the committee has handled so far?
Dr. M Venkata Kirthiga: The complaints received are very low in number. One reason is basic hesitancy. Personally, I have heard a lot and spoke to a lot of students. There have been instances when I asked them to register complaints and open up about the incident during the enquiry. But the persons are not ready to come forward and I cannot blame them for it as well. We can be very modern and supportive, but we can’t empathise with the person in situations like these. Students still have the basic hesitancy like “why should my name get out for such a reason”. There is this psychological block that many women possess. We always maintain the anonymity of all complainants, but we still need to record and report the proceedings for official purposes. Many people aren’t comfortable with their personal story getting recorded. People need to be bold and not tolerate any objectionable behaviour.
Can a third person lodge a complaint?
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: Third person complaints are allowed. But the actual complainant has to attend the enquiry to explain the fact of the complaint. The third person can give a preliminary complaint.
What kind of cases do you generally deal with? Is it abuse of power or misunderstanding?
Dr. M. Venkata Kirthiga: Cases can be between student-student, student-faculty, student-staff, and staff-staff. Some cases were misbehaviours, some were abuse of power, some due to psychological reasons. Nobody will immediately accept the allegations made against them. They’ll deny it to the maximum and try to cover up.
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: From the ICC point of view, the cases would have been treated impartially whoever be the complainant and respondent. The complaint will be reviewed thoroughly to find the complete truth and report it to management.
Could you explain the organisational structure of the ICC? How many cases dealt with?
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: Initially, the Sexual Harassment Committee was functional in our campus. Based on the “Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013” the committee was renamed as Internal Complaints Committee and reconstituted in 2013. The committee was directed to have at least 60% female members in different cadres along with the inclusion of external members. The first president of the ICC was Mrs.Krishnaveni Sekar from BHEL. We also contact other sources via Skype in cases where professional opinion is required.
The committee is reconstituted once in every 3 years. In some institutions, the committee includes student members as well. This may be followed in our institution after discussion.
ICC had dealt with 7 cases so far. ICC looks out for protecting people at the workplace. If harassment happens outside the campus, it does not come under ICC purview and in such case, the complainant can lodge it with the police.
Have you ever got any false complaints?
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: No false complaints have been made until now. In all 7 cases we dealt with, the accused were proven guilty.
What kind of evidence helps you ascertain the truth?
Dr. M.Venkata Kirthiga: Audio proof, any conversation (threatening or otherwise), letters, email, video, etc. Once we considered a Google chat also. Any kind of proof is acceptable.
Do you think it is possible to educate people about what is appropriate behaviour and what is not?
Dr. M. Venkata Kirthiga: We are planning to conduct a workshop to address different target audiences over the course of 3-4 days. We intend to educate not just the students but also other residents of this campus. Language is the main barrier. We can address the students in English. But that won’t be ideal for children, whom we want to educate about child abuse. In addition, we plan to spread awareness regarding this among staff members and women residing in the campus through this workshop.
What measures can be taken by ICC to make students aware of its presence?
Dr. R. Tamil Selvi : Last year, ICC had announced to conduct a competition on “Laws related to Women” sponsored by National Commission for Women to the student community but that didn’t materialize because of lack of participation. The competition needed minimum of 40 students but enrollment was hardly 19 even after 3 rounds of announcement.
According to UGC guidelines, regular orientation and training programs need to be held for members of ICC. To what extent is this followed in our college?
Dr. M. Venkata Kirthiga: Our ICC members attended training programmes regarding Laws related to harassment at Bangalore, Hyderabad and Tiruchirappalli. In continuation of this, ICC planned to conduct training programmes regarding harassment to members of NITT. Student volunteers and media team are needed to help in this regard.
What are some of the challenges you face?
Dr. M. Venkata Kirthiga: Sometimes via intuition we know that the person feels guilty. But based on intuitions, the recommendations cannot be reported. One of the problems during enquiry is the lack of evidence either by recording or by any means. We cannot blame the complainant. Also, we can’t deny the enquiry.
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: Every case is a challenge. Bringing out the truth in each case is hard.
How long does an enquiry take? How many days does it take for the administration to reach a decision based on your recommendations?
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum: Enquiries sometimes continued for hours together. It’s a very sensitive issue so we cannot fix a timeframe to close it. We are the truth-finding committee; we submit the report with factual details and recommendations to the management. Based on our recommendations, another committee is constituted by the Director to take the final decision on action against the respondent.
Dr. M. Venkata Kirthiga: Some cases have been finished within a week and some cases went on for 3 months. Since our committee contains an external person, their availability also matters.
Could you give us a breakdown of the number of cases and the people involved in the cases you have dealt with?
Dr. K.M. Meera S. Begum :
In the future, is it possible to publicize the positive outcomes of the cases you have dealt with?
Dr. M. Venkata Kirthiga: The ICC president at the Department of women’s studies, Bharathidasan University encouraged us to publish a report with details about the cases dealt with and the action taken. In our institute, this has not been done to maintain anonymity for the people involved. We could discuss with the management about this possibility in future.