India is ranked a dismal 140 out of 156 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. The country has fallen 28 places since 2020. However, this is not because we do not have any laws or rights protecting women. In fact, the principle of gender equality is an inherent right, enshrined in our constitution. India also has a number of progressive laws that support and help women.
Where we go wrong is that most of these laws remain on paper and are rarely put into practice – either due to lack of awareness about them or because the system allows us to find loopholes in the laws.
As Indian women, we need to be aware of our rights and laws to be able to fight any injustice that we may face at our workplaces or in society:
Here are 11 laws and rights to be aware of:
Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017: The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017, provides women with certain rights that protect their interests at work during pregnancy.
The Act, which covers any organisation that has more than 10 employees, includes the right to take a fully paid maternity leave, up from the previous 12 weeks to 26 weeks. Women who opt for surrogacy or adopt a child under the age of three months are entitled to 12 weeks of leave.
Further, organisations that have 50 or more employees will be required to set up a creche or daycare facility on their premises. The mother will be allowed to visit the creche up to four times a day. Employees are expected to communicate details of the Act at the time of employment.
Hindu Succession Act: Most women, regardless of their economic and educational backgrounds, are unaware about their rights over their ancestral property. While the law on inheritance ranges from religion to religion as India does not have a Unifrom Civil Code, as per the Hindu Succession Act, daughters have equal share over their parent's property even after they are married. Hence, as per the law, daughters have the same rights to any property of their parents as the sons do.
The Prohibition of Child Marriage Act: As per estimates, each year nearly 1.5 million girls under the age of 18 get married in India, making it the country with the highest number of child brides. However, child marriage is prohibited in India under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.
The Act defines child marriage as one where either one or both the parties are underage. As per the Act, the minimum marriage age for women is 18, and for men, it is 21. A Government taskforce has recommended further increasing the minimum marriage age to 21.
Dowry Prohibition Act: Dowry, unfortunately, is a fact in many Indian marriages, with the bride/groom’s family expected to give a dowry to the other party. This has led to much harassment and women are often beaten, tortured or even killed over dowry. However, as per the law, the act of giving or taking dowry at the time of marriage is illegal.
The law defines dowry as property, goods or money given by either party to the marriage. This is given by the parents of the bride/groom or anyone else connected with them.
While gifts given during the marriage are exempt from the law, you need to maintain a list describing each gift, the value, the identity of each person giving the gift and their relationship with either party.
Right to anonymity: Section- 228 (A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) provides for the anonymity of a rape victim. Hence, printing or publishing the name and details of a rape survivor, unless she wishes to reveal it herself, is illegal.
Right to equal pay: Under the provisions of the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, when it comes to wages or salary. Further, Article 39(d), part IV of the Constitution of India states that the Government should ensure that its policies provide for an equal remuneration for both men and women, if the work done is the same and people are holding identical posts or ranks.
Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013: The Vishaka Guidelines, which were intended to protect women at work, defined sexual harassment as:
Sexually determined behaviour (whether directly or by implication) which can be a) Physical contact and advances; b) A demand or request for sexual favours; c) Sexually coloured remarks; d) Showing pornography; e) Any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
The Guidelines observed that sexual harassment does not need to involve physical contact, and any action that creates a hostile environment, counts as sexual harassment.
In 2013, the Vishaka Guidelines was superseded by The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act. Taking forward the definition of sexual harassment from the Vishaka Guidelines, the Act states that sexual harassment violates a woman’s right to work. It further adds that actions resulting in a violation of one’s rights to ‘Gender Equality and ‘Life and Liberty’ are in fact a violation of the victim’s fundamental right under Article 19.
Among other aspects, the Act orders that all offices or branches with a minimum of 10 employees, are required to set up Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) to investigate all complaints. Employers failing to do so are liable to pay a fine of Rs 50,000. A second instance of non-compliance can lead to the revocation of the company’s license.
Right to no arrest: As per sub-section (4) of Section 46 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, no woman can be arrested between 6 PM and 6 AM, even if there is an arrest warrant and a woman constable accompanying the police officers. Women also have the right to refuse to go to a police station for interrogation and can demand that it be carried out at their homes, in the presence of family or friends, under Section 160 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
If under any circumstances, a woman has to be arrested post-sunset, the police will have to seek prior permission of the Magistrate. Further, the arrest should only be made by a Lady Police Officer.
Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill 2021: Under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill 2021, which amends the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, special categories of women, including victims of incest, rape victims, minors and differently-abled women, will be allowed to undergo abortion till 24 weeks.
Further, you do not need to be married to terminate a pregnancy. Both married and unmarried women may terminate pregnancy up to 20 weeks if termination is due to the failure of a contraceptive method or device. This is a departure from the old provision which allowed only married women and their husbands to avail of MTP.
The Bill focuses on confidentiality and medical practitioners will only be allowed to reveal details of the woman whose pregnancy has been terminated, to a person authorised by law.
Right to virtual complaints: If a woman is unable to physically go to a police station to file an FIU=R, she has the right to file a written complaint online or sending a registered post addressing a senior police officer of the level of Deputy Commissioner or Commissioner of Police.
Right to Zero FIR: Under this right, women can also file a complaint at any police station, irrespective of the area where the crime has been committed. Here the case is registered with the FIR seriel number 0 and is transferred to the respective police station. The concept of Zero FIR came into existance after the Nirbhaya case.