WATCH NOW: 5 Ways to Engage an Audience When the Subject is Complex: by Deepa and Muhammed Rafeeque

Albert Einstein said that “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” In 1992, Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by five angry upper-class villagers, for protesting against the child marriage. Her case was the catalyst to the Vishakha Guidelines, 1997 that outlined the norms to protect women against sexual harassment in workplaces. These guidelines later became the basis of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (The POSH Act).

Deepa Rafeeque, one of the lawyers involved in the Bhanwari Devi case has witnessed the POSH Act evolve and take shape since the beginning. Deepa, along with her husband, Muhammed Rafeeque started their entity ‘VLegal’ with the motto of simplifying law for the layman. They are revolutionising the otherwise complicated and ambiguous legal language. They have also taken it upon themselves to train non-legal individuals in POSH and Protection of Children from the Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO Act). Till date, they have created an army of 240 trainers across India.

 Deepa and Rafeeque share their journey and their passion for demystifying law with Siddhi Gandhi.

“Law as a language” is complicated. We ignore the ‘terms’, ‘agreements’ at the end of applications or subscriptions and just click ‘I agree’ to proceed. How did you start your journey and conceptualize the idea of simplifying it for the layman?

Muhammed Rafeeque: VLegal comprises of Deepa and me as lawyers. We have over 30 years of experience each and have been part of the in-house legal team of various organisations like the Airport Authority of India, National Small Industries Corporation, Delhi International Airport Private Limited, Project and Equipments Corporation Limited, Aircel. We wanted to start something innovative of our own and the first thing on our minds was that we should make the law simplified.

The roots are in my internship experience, in the 90s. I was concerned about the complexity of the legal language way back then. It distances the law from the layman and people think that law is something not meant to be understood.

I started practising law with a senior civil lawyer in my hometown in Kerala. One day, a client came to the office with his wife. Both were primary school teachers. They owned a small house, but the only pathway to their house belonged to their neighbour. Their neighbour wanted to block the pathway for some construction. The couple was worried and had come to my senior for legal help. After going through their documents, my senior told them “You have a good case of a ‘mandatory injunction’ as you have an easement right over the property’! Let us file an ‘injunction suit’ and get a ‘status quo’.” The client did not understand anything but entrusted the case, paid the fees and left.

If my senior had told the couple, “You have a good case and your neighbour cannot block your pathway as it is your right under the law which is called easement right and you can file your complaint and the court can tell your neighbour to not to block the pathway,” then the couple would have understood their rights under the law.

Even when people do not understand what is happening, they go along with what the lawyer is saying, as they have no choice. They do not feel inclined to understand the law and assume that it is supposed to be complicated. Normally, the Lawyers talk to two kinds of people; judges or lawyers, who would understand the language. Over a period of time, they presume that the clients have understood the jargons and do not give any further explanation. It’s more of an occupational hazard.

Law is not part of the school curriculum. Children have no idea of the basic laws of our country. It is only at law colleges where you get a grasp on the legal language.

How do you go about ‘providing’ law that is easily understood?

Muhammed Rafeeque: Let us understand through a couple of examples. Every day, we buy packaged food products. On the packet, they depict some legal terms issued by FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India). We do not read them and even if we do, they are difficult to comprehend.

We all use e-commerce facilities for buying the products and services. Does anyone attempt to read the ‘user agreement’ or ‘privacy policy’ uploaded in its websites before we click ‘I Agree’? Even if we read, we don’t understand most of the conditions as the language and structure of those documents are complicated. So, our intention is to explain the law in a way that people understand.

When we started VLegal in 2013, we wanted to build a platform to explain the law and its purpose in a language people understand, easily. Our tagline is “Knowledge sharing is our Attitude” and we wanted to adhere to it.

One of my Delhi clients wanted me to draft a ‘software license agreement’. Normally, the agreement is complex and can be 20 to 40 pages long, so I decided to simplify and shortened it to 10 pages. I was proud of having made the contract concise and understandable, but to my surprise, my client said, “Rafeeque, ye toh ‘legal nahi lag raha hai’ maza nahi aaya.” He felt it was not ‘legal enough’, as he could understand the terms of the agreement! This is the irony of our profession.

Deepa:  Therefore, we try to make people understand the purpose and provisions of the law in simple language. In our experience, if you explain the ‘purpose’ and ‘object’ of a particular law, we found that people appreciate it.

People assume that you will talk using legal jargon. When you started conducting legal training and workshops, were the trainees receptive of the simplified law?

Muhammed Rafeeque: 90% of our trainers are not lawyers and they are doing the training (POSH and POCSO) amazingly. When we designed our training content, the first thing we used to do is to remove the legal jargons and replace it with simple words and usages.

If a person without legal knowledge reads even one clause from a legal document, it would be incomprehensible. But strangely, people feel satisfied with it. Understanding law has never been a priority.

To make simple law a priority, we provide corporate legal training. Initially, many companies felt teaching law to all employees was not needed. It took some convincing on our part that whether it is the HR department or the finance, all use law in some way or another. Secondly, not every company can afford to have a legal department, so it is even more important for employees to be trained in the subject. Our ‘Legal for Non-Legal’ is now one of the favourite courses among employees. We also conduct workshops for advanced topics like Contract Management, Employment Management, Dispute Resolution Mechanism etc., applying the same method.

Deepa: Initially, the POSH trainer program was designed for three days as we wanted to explain the law in detail. We met a few corporates to discuss the workshop, but they had issues with the duration. ‘Who will sit and listen to the law for three days from 10 am to 6 pm?”  So, we compromised and cut it down to two days. Once the workshops started, we got a lot of feedback asking for a three-day program.

Tell us a little bit about the audience the workshops attract.

The POSH workshops attract trainers from all fields

Muhammed Rafeeque: They attract a lot of non-legal people. Our audience comprises the trainers, counsellors, and people working in HR, administration, operations and sales, marketing and finance. They find this course interesting because it is simple and gives them the knowledge the way they comprehend. Take, for example, the definition of ‘Workplace’ under POSH Act is too wide and it’s deliberate. It is more than the four walls of an office structure. The definition is provided keeping in view of the present working culture of corporate. The ‘work from home’ is part of the workplace, today. So, when you just read out this definition, the participants would lose the relevance, you need to show the purpose of it. Therefore, we explain the purpose of the law than just ‘law’

 Why do you focus on POSH and POCSO?

Muhammed Rafeeque: Because we believe that the sexual harassment against women and children are the most heinous crimes and we should make the people aware of the consequences. We have two signature programs for training the trainers. One is POSH and the other is POCSO.

Both of these laws mandate employers to make their employees aware of the legal consequences. POSH normally focuses on sexual harassment of women at their workplace. The POSH Act 2013 mandates every corporate to give the awareness to each and every employee i.e. from peon to chairman. Not adhering to the mandate can be considered as non-compliance and the corporate shall be penalized by the authorities. Similarly, the POCSO Act 2012 is applicable to all educational institutions, orphanages or any similar institutions with children below 18 years. POCSO also requires some mandatory training for the staff and students.

We started providing training for both these laws in schools and to corporates and realized that we didn’t have sufficient trainers in our country. To overcome this, we decided to create trainers. We designed a two-day program to Train the Trainers (TTT). The idea was to engage freelance trainers who provide soft skills, marketing or sales training. We were able to train non-legal trainers to conduct legal workshops on POSH. Today, while looking back, we are glad that we have an excellent group of trainers in our network across the country.

We have conducted the workshops in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore and Pune, Ahmedabad, Kochi. With 17 classroom-training and 240 trainers, over 100 trainers have started conducting independent workshops on POSH. We have created a network of trainers across the country.

Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace: A Guide to The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013 by Deepa Rafeeque

Speaking of POSH, how receptive are people about learning more about the Act? Are they open to participate in the workshops?

Deepa: It is indeed a challenge. Before the #MeToo movement, people were not receptive to the training. The movement created awareness about sexual harassment in the society and many corporates realized that POSH is mandatory and decided to hold workshops. As mentioned before, there is no other training in India, which is mandatory for each and every establishment except POSH and POCSO. Now the situation is comparatively better as companies are aware of the importance of POSH training. If they do not follow the mandate, they can get their trade license cancelled. This is the only law in India where the companies can have their license cancelled.

The POSH workshop includes the workshop itself, a book as a handy guide, the training mechanism (group discussions, role play, case studies), and follow-up guidance through a WhatsApp community. Take us through these communication tools and combinations you have chosen.

Muhammed Rafeeque:  We are aware that the proposed two days’ workshop alone would not make our trainers a ‘POSH Enabler’. Every day the law changes through amendments, judgments etc., So, we have formed the ‘trainer groups’ on WhatsApp, where we share the updates/reforms in the Act and encourage the discussions on a daily basis. The law is such a dynamic subject, one needs to update it almost every day. Every new judgement or amendments or guidelines come with some changes, which though minor, are of great importance and all the trainers are in the loop. We also use the group to share details of the refresher course we conduct.

Deepa: Our website is updated on upcoming events and programs. Word-of-mouth creates awareness about the programs more than any other media.

Did you notice any patterns? What would you attribute the patterns to?

Deepa: People wrongly assume that POSH training is meant for women employees only because it is concerned with sexual harassment of women at the workplace. Whether the participants are from corporates, freelancers or even non-trainers, the case is similar everywhere.

Men need to attend the POSH workshop to understand what kind of behaviour can be regarded as sexual harassment and whatnot, how they could be punished and how they should behave if they come across a colleague sexually harassing a woman. Even a casual comment can be deemed as sexual harassment under the law. There is a thin line, and they should be aware of it. Furthermore, a male trainer can explain the prevention aspects of the law to the male employees, in a better way.

Similarly, with POCSO, children, parents, teachers, all need to be aware of the law. Under POCSO each of us (the public) can be an offender if we don’t report any incident of sexual abuse of children within our knowledge. Both POSH and POCSO are awareness creation programs. Training is mandatory for all schools, or their affiliation with the CBSE or ICSE boards can be cancelled. Basically, we train the trainers to create awareness about the law and spread it across every state in the country. This way we can avoid any situation where you have to reach up to the police or court.

Many POSH training workshop providers are the government of India empanelled institutions. What makes VLegal stand out?

Deepa: We are a law firm and both of us as lawyers having corporate experience. This makes us different. VLegal is empanelled by the Government of India, Ministry of Women and Child Development to provide this training. I am one of the lawyers who originally handled the basic case of Bhanwari Devi in Jaipur, which resulted in this law. I know things from day 1 till now.

All the reading material used by us during the workshops, the PPTs, notes, case studies are shared with the participants. I have written a book titled “Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace; the Law and Practice” on POSH, which is available in the market. We share a lot of case studies that have actually happened in India and have role plays in the workshop for the participants to understand them better.

Muhammed Rafeeque: What makes us unique is that we understand the nuances of such offences occurring in workplaces as we were part of those places during our corporate stints. We use our own experiences to teach. We give participants case studies to analyse and tell whether they are cases of sexual harassment or not. Most of them are client real-life cases or from court documents. And we keep updating the program.

Since the law is subject to amendments, how do you keep participants continuously engaged and updated post the workshop?

Muhammed Rafeeque: We have two WhatsApp groups for both POSH or POCSO workshops. Whoever does a Train the Trainer workshop with us gets added to it. We use these groups to keep the trainers updated about amendments after the workshop is over. They are also used to share region-specific news related to sexual harassment, child abuse, sex offence, etc. This is helpful when events that are not highlighted or shared. Every case, big or small, can be used as a case reference when we conduct subsequent workshops.

Students are taught theoretical law, without much awareness about sexual harassment laws or laws related to child abuse. Should they be added to every student’s curriculum?

Muhammed Rafeeque: Absolutely. Basic Law must be part of the school curriculum. Our children should know about their fundamental rights and duties. They should be taught how our courts function and what is the process. It is necessary to make basic law a part of the school curriculum from either class 5 or 8 onwards.

Deepa: Children are not aware of right or wrong. Take the recent ‘Bois Locker Room’ case in Delhi. Young children are exposed to numerous things on the internet. Talking about sex is a taboo at home so it is natural that children turn to other sources to satisfy their curiosity. They try experimenting with friends without being aware that what they are doing is an offence. We need to move away from the misconception that talking about sex or sex education is bad for children.

Awareness is required. We are not asking them to talk about everything related to sex, but at least we should tell them what is genuine and what is not, and why is it an offence and what the punishments are. Convey to them which body parts should not be touched or looked at, and what to do if someone makes them uncomfortable. This much should be taught to kids below the age of ten. Not many schools and colleges are creating awareness about sexual harassment for kids.

What’s ahead for VLegal?

Muhammed Rafeeque: Last year VLegal was featured in the Silicon India magazine as one of the 10 best legal start-ups that did something innovative. Barring a few states, we have trainers everywhere in India. The local language is an issue, so we need trainers who know the local language of the region. Now our goal is to ensure that every district in India should have a trained and competent POSH/POCSO trainer who can do the awareness programs in the local language. We need one trained personnel that has been certified by us in training, in the 600-700 districts across the country.

We want to focus more on POCSO as cases involving minors are increasing. Since the lockdown started, we had to shift to online channels. We are conducting 12-hour training sessions – 2 hours each for 6 days. Each day we do repeat sessions, alternate between morning and afternoon sessions so that participants do not miss them due to other work commitments. We conduct 12 days of continuous training, while the participants have to attend for 6 days only. Online training is going to be the mantra for the future. Classroom training may not happen anytime soon.