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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 arassment in offices are seen as rife.

In a 2005 case, Indian air force pilot Anjali Gupta was court-martialled for misconduct after she accused three superiors of sexually harassing her -- a year after three trainees were also sacked when they levelled similar charges.

And a 2005 survey by the Confederation of Indian Industries reported only four percent of women in the organised sector held senior management positions.

The draft offers victims leave from work, transfers if they wish and compensation from money deducted from the salaries of their tormentors.

The woman behind the initiative, R. Saraswati from the Ministry of Women and Child Development, said she hoped to see a bill put before deputies after parliament resumes on August 6.

But the response from men's rights groups have highlighted challenges the text is likely to face in India's feisty, male-dominated parliament.

"The lazier ones (women) will exploit the legislation to further their career," said Swaroop Sarkar, the head of the Save Family Foundation.

The Protect Indian Family group said such a law would open the way for "rampant misuse."

"In this bill hearsay will be the clinching evidence," said forum director P.R. Gokul, though he acknowledged something needed to be done.

National Commission of Women member Bhattacharya said a storm could only be expected.

"Wherever there is a law, the possibility of its misuse cannot be ruled out," she said. "But it is unfortunate that such arguments immediately follow whenever issues of women's rights come up. We don't buy this."


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