The dynamism of the Indian Constitution, particularly Article 21, which assures every citizen the right to life and personal liberty, has been pivotal in fortifying the rights of women in the country. This Article, though concise in its phrasing, has been expansively interpreted by the Supreme Court to safeguard the nuanced rights that pertain to women. Here’s a deep dive into how the judiciary, using Article 21, has bolstered the rights of women.
1. Right to Dignity: In Francis Coralie Mullin vs. Administrator, Union Territory of Delhi (1981), the Supreme Court pronounced that the right to life is not just a mere physical existence but encompasses the right to live with dignity. This judgment becomes the bedrock for several women-centric rulings, ensuring that they are not subjected to acts that degrade or violate their dignity.
2. Protection Against Sexual Harassment: In the landmark Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan (1997) case, the Supreme Court acknowledged sexual harassment at the workplace as a violation of the fundamental right to gender equality and the right to life and liberty. The guidelines set in this case eventually paved the way for the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013.
3. Right to Privacy: While the K.S. Puttaswamy vs. Union of India (2017) case is renowned for acknowledging the right to privacy as a fundamental right, it has particular implications for women. This judgment enhances the privacy rights of women, giving them control over personal decisions, including their reproductive rights and the right against disclosure of their identities in cases of sexual assault.
4. Right Against Rape and Sexual Assault: Bodhisattwa Gautam vs. Subhra Chakraborty (1996) was a significant judgment where the Court recognized rape as a crime against the basic human rights of women and a violation of the right to life enshrined in Article 21. The court emphasized the need for victims to be compensated for the trauma they undergo.
5. Reproductive Rights: In the case of Suchita Srivastava vs. Chandigarh Administration (2009), the Supreme Court upheld the reproductive rights of women as a dimension of personal liberty. The Court emphasized that any infringement on reproductive rights would be a direct affront to the right to privacy, dignity, and bodily integrity.
6. Right Against Forced Sterilization: Post the emergency era, in the case of Devika Biswas vs. Union of India (2016), the Supreme Court addressed the gross negligence during mass sterilization camps, recognizing the violation of women’s rights under Article 21. The Court directed states to formulate proper schemes to ensure the surgeries are performed with care, thus emphasizing the importance of reproductive rights.
7. Right to Maternity Benefits: The right to health, including reproductive health, has been emphasized as an essential part of the right to life. The Supreme Court has, in various cases, upheld the right of working women to maternity benefits, ensuring a life of dignity both for the mother and the child.
Article 21, through the vigilant eyes of the Indian Supreme Court, has emerged as an empowering tool for women’s rights in the country. By interpreting the Article in alignment with the changing needs of society, the judiciary has continually endeavored to create a nation where every woman can live with dignity, freedom, and security. The journey, while progressive, is ongoing, with the hope that the sanctity of women’s rights will only get further cemented in the future.