Sexual harassment

20 Aug 2017

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DESPITE accounting for about half of Pakistan’s population, women are disproportionately underrepresented in national emp­loyment registers. Given our society’s endemic gender inequality, working women know that to compete in a man’s world they must work twice as hard. From highly paid CEOs to lowly paid domestic workers, the social and psychological costs that working women bear often outweigh the financial gains.

Feminist groups were in the vanguard of the struggle for political and social rights during the heyday of the Gen Zia’s martial law regime, and women activists were the first to launch public protests against legislation that amounted to state-sponsored gender discrimination — placing the issue of women’s rights at the heart of the national democratic struggle.

Following amendments to criminal law regarding ‘honour’ killings in 2004, we have witnessed a decade of progressive legislation being moved in parliament. In recent years, the efforts of the Alliance against Sexual Harassment culminated into the enactment of the landmark Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010.

There is still a long way to go to create enabling work environments.

Under the act, a federal ombudsperson secretariat was created in Islamabad in 2010 specifically for the resolution of cases of workplace harassment. Retired justice Yasmeen Abbasi, the current federal ombudsperson, has contributed significantly to the implementation of the law. The ombudsperson’s office is also working on amending the act to replace ‘women’ with ‘person’ in the act to make it more inclusive and extend its outreach to workers in the uncharted shores of the informal economy.

However, the right of suo motu action, which is granted to all other federal and provincial ombudspersons in the country, has been denied to the federal ombudsperson for workplace harassment. Without the legal authority to proactively seek out cases of sexual harassment, such as those that are brought to the public’s attention through the media, the ombudsperson’s office must wait for the aggrieved person to step forward and lodge a formal complaint before the law can take its course.

If a woman accuses a man of sexual harassment, her claim must be taken seriously. Sadly, the prevalent chauvinist attitude assumes that the woman must be guilty of provocation. Such allegations are routinely brushed aside in organisations dominated by men. Given this casual attitude towards harassment and the fact that women are almost universally discriminated against by men in Pakistan, some say that even if a woman wanted to make a false allegation the attempt could be ignored. The National Implementation Watch Committee, a part of the implementation framework, should proactively monitor cases of harassment to offset any chance of the law being misused.

What does it say of the efficacy of the federal ombudsperson for workplace harassment that even a member of parliament such as Aaisha Gulalai chose to make her allegations public and fight a media trial with PTI chairperson Imran Khan rather than file a formal complaint with the office? Parliamentarians must arm the ombudsperson’s office with the powers to actively initiate investigations into workplace harassment, and make use of the mechanism themselves to build trust in the institution.

Given the increasing number of women in higher education, business and employment, all public and private organisations must abide by the act in letter and spirit. Many women are also assuming active roles in politics and working across various tiers of political parties. It is high time that the National Assembly speaker and the Senate chairperson establish an internal code of conduct, and a complaint and appeal mechanism, to enable women parliamentarians to participate in a fair, equitable political environment.

Gender sensitivity trainings workshops should be conducted in all places of work and education in both the private and public sectors. Schools, colleges and universities — nurseries for developing a young nation — should be the focal points for gender sensitisation programmes.

Notwithstanding the gaps in the implementation of laws designed to create enabling public, work and home environments for women, the series of legislation and amendments in the Penal Code are commendable attempts to reform not just criminal justice but also society. These laws aim to change deep-seated gender inequalities, rooted in our social structure, which tend to restrict the economic and intellectual potential of Pakistani women to unremunerated household labour.

It is an obscure fact of our national history that nearly all our human rights bills have been tabled by women parliamentarians, aided by rights activists. Pakistani women have struggled very hard to achieve legal emancipation; however, there is still a long way to go to achieve emancipation from the clutches of a patriarchal, social and cultural order.

The writer is vice president of the Council of Social Sciences Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2017