IN Pakistan, not only do women suffer the toxic culture of workplace misogyny, they also fear that breaking their silence on sexism and physical violations will have serious consequences. This is because sexual harassment happens where there is a power differential, where men in authority wield control over women’s careers and reputation. In a report published on Tuesday in this newspaper, women from many professions — law, medicine, education, etc — spoke of their experience. They reported unwanted contact, catcalling, gender-related comments, groping, unwelcome promise of rewards for sexual favours and persistent propositioning. Based on interviews and the findings of a countrywide poll on sexual harassment, the report suggests the true scale of the problem is far greater than what is generally believed. Of the 300 respondents surveyed, for instance, 83pc believe men will get away with inappropriate behaviour. Women everywhere in the workforce suffer economically, socially and professionally for challenging abusers. Interviewees sharing their harrowing experiences confirmed this: a medical student didn’t complain when propositioned in the operating theatre; a teacher suffered relentless intimidation and physical abuse to keep her job; students spoke of sexual favours exchanged for grades. Despite a 2010 law to protect against workplace harassment, many women are dissuaded from making official complaints — only 17pc had approached an internal inquiry committee, according to the Dawn poll.
Although organisations and universities are legally obligated to institute inquiry committees mandated to rule impartially on harassment cases, most fail to follow through. Improving law and policy is critical, especially as conversations are being triggered about women’s rights to workplace respect and safety. These conversations must include the precarious workplace conditions endured by vulnerable women, including factory workers and contract employees. Provincial women’s commissions could also act as watchdogs by checking on inquiry processes at workplaces. Also, the 2010 law should be amended to allow provincial ombudspersons to take suo motu notice of harassment cases. As always, the Achilles heel lies in executing legal requisites — since April 2017, Punjab has had no ombudsperson, while this slot has not been filled in KP and Balochistan for the past eight years. To end, breaking the silence on harassment will break the hold of power and patriarchy and pave the way for lasting change. Writer, Maya Angelou’s advice is gold for Pakistani women: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”
Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2018