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India Grapples With First Bill to Stop Workplace Sex Harassment

India's government is grappling to come up with the first ever legislation aimed at stopping sexual harassment and provide minimum protection to women joining the workforce of its booming economy.

A draft law set to go before parliament when it resumes next month aims to put an end to everything from dirty jokes to physical abuse, but is already being criticised by some as too flimsy and by others as open to abuse.

The draft brands "gestures of a sexual nature whether verbal, textual, physical, graphic or electronic" as "unwelcome conduct," but it applies only to women working in the organised sector.

"Finally, this bill will empower Indian working women to fight back injustices they have been suffering for decades," said Jaya Arunachalam, a prominent Indian feminist.

But she added that "89 percent of 270 million workers in the unorganised sector are women who have no protection at all from exploitation and sexual oppression."

The draft only covers factories, hotels, airlines, textile mills, parts of the farm sector and offices. Arunachalam, who heads the 700,000 Working Women's Forum, said the draft needed more teeth.

"This bill is not too clear on the protection it offers to those millions of women" in the unorganised economy, Arunachalam said by telephone from the southern city of Chennai.

"Crucial things like the unorganised sector have been left out from the proposed law," agreed Malini Bhattacharya, a member of the National Commission of Women, a body set up by parliament in 1992 to safeguard women's rights.

"Sexual harassment, especially in the unorganised sector, is rampant."

Out of India's hundreds of millions of working women, as few as 1.5 million can be considered to be a part of the formal sector that would be protected by such legislation.

Still, for those women a law would be welcome news, as discrimination and h
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