Recently, allegations of ‘rampant’ sexual harassment in sports have prompted the Indian Express news outlet to report concerns that most Indian Sports Federations have failed to constitute Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs), despite this being mandated by law. This issue has been brought to the fore again due to a protest launched by Indian wrestlers against the President of the Wrestling Federation of India, in respect of an alleged sexual harassment case. The protestors have demanded strict action, but no ICC has been established by the relevant authorities. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took cognizance of the lack of ICCs, and has issued redress notices to the Indian Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, as well as various National Sports Federations.
The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act of 2013 (PoSH Act) mandates the establishment of an Internal Complaints Committee at every ‘workplace’ employing more than 10 ‘employees’. ‘Employee’ and ‘workplace’ are defined in sections 2(f) and 2(o) of the Act respectively. Several Indian Sports Federations would fall within the definition of ‘workplaces’, as they employ senior leadership teams, administrative staff, and sports coaches. Consequently, many Federations should have constituted ICCs to address allegations of sexual harassment made by sports participants. However, the failure to constitute ICCs at various Indian workplaces has been highlighted time and again by different authors.
A separate issue arises when workplaces establish ICCs, but fail to inform their employees about them. ICCs are sometimes considered to be a weapon in the hands of female employees against their colleagues and employers. Consequently, the International Labour Organization has recommended raising awareness among employees about policies regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.
Lack of Internal Complaints Committees in Indian Workplaces
In India, it is widely believed that the realm of sports belongs exclusively to men. Parents may thus be apprehensive of sending daughters to participate in sports. Against this backdrop, incidents of sexual harassment in sports further aggravate such restrictions, which can be avoided only by building a safe environment where concerns related to such harassment are dealt with promptly and fairly. However, the lack of ICCs at various workplaces, including in sports federations, daunts victims by leaving them with only one recourse: approaching the courts. Victims tend not to do this due to fear of embarrassment in society, and also potential repercussions if the accused is not held accountable, including potentially sabotage to the victim’s career.
A separate concern arises due to ineffective ICCs. Several sports federations in India work under an ad-hoc body, without permanent management in place. In such cases, it could be difficult for victims to seek recourse in respect of sexual harassment, due to lack of trust in such bodies.
The Importance of Internal Complaints Committees
Indian Courts have, at various instances, highlighted the lack of ICCs and resulting problems. For example, in Gayathri Balaswamy vs. ISG Novasoft Technologies Ltd., the Madras High Court stated that the constitution of an ICC cannot be replaced by ‘any other committee’. In another case, the Court again emphasized the irreplaceable importance of ICCs in providing help to victims of sexual abuse in workplaces. The Court in both cases awarded compensation to the victims for hardships faced due to the lack of an ICC at their workplace.
Alongside providing direct recourse to victims, ICCs also make systematic amends in workplace culture, as sexual harassment can happen even during routine practice or preparation for tournaments. It is evident why there is a lack of faith in the functioning of ICCs, especially among women. But they are crucial to providing an environment where any form of harassment, verbal or physical, is not normalized or tolerated.
Suggestions for Change
The aim of PoSH Act was to eliminate sexual harassment in workplaces. Evidence suggests that the legislation has not achieved its aim. The lack of ICCs creates an accountability gap regarding incidents of harassment. A system of accountability must be instituted whereby federations that fail to introduce measures remedying cases of harassment are held liable, either by some overseeing authority or by the courts.
Several countries and international sports federations around the globe have appointed general counsels, who establish and monitor policies in their organisations. The addition of such positions in ICCs in India would aid timely redress to victims. This would also place an extra level of compliance on senior figures, not to only constitute ICCs, but also to make them function as effective remedial bodies.
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