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ISLAMABAD: Highlighting the need for developing a mechanism to simplify the process of lodging complaints about harassment of women at workplaces, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the federal and provincial governments to make the law against harassment stronger.

The directive came after Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed, who was heading a three-judge bench, expressed concern over reports doing the rounds about the weakness of the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act.

On May 11, 2016, former chief justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali had taken a suo motu notice after an acrimonious situation with a potential to vitiate the dignity of the judiciary developed as former federal ombudsperson for protection against harassment of women at workplace Yasmin Abbasi issued arrest warrants for then senior puisne judge of the Lahore High Court Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah. She had also ordered the Punjab police chief to ensure appearance of the judge at the office of ombudsperson on May 13, 2016.

But the apex court had looked upon the matter to be in bad taste and initiated suo motu proceedings by suspending the purported arrest warrants issued by the ombudsperson.

Summons details of complaints received by federal, provincial governments

Ms Abbasi also served as a judge of the Sindh High Court as well as law secretary during the last PPP government. She had to quit as SHC judge against the backdrop of the famous July 31, 2009 judgement that had declared the Nov 3, 2007 emergency illegal and unconstitutional.

During a previous hearing, Ms Abbasi had taken the plea that neither the apex court nor the high court had any jurisdiction to entertain petitions on issues on which her office had taken cognizance in terms of Section 18 of the Federal Ombudsman Reform Act.

On Wednesday, incumbent ombudsperson Kashmala Tariq appeared before the Supreme Court and pointed out that even the apex court had not constituted any committee on harassment as required under the law. She also claimed that there was no complaint about sexual harassment against women at workplaces in Sindh.

But Justice Saeed rubbished the claim, adding that the absence of complaints did not mean that no issue of harassment existed there as the victim party was always hesitant to highlight the complaints in the open.

Additional Attorney General Sajid Ilyas Bhatti informed the court that the federal government was examining the law and might bring further amendments to it.

The court, however, observed that if the government intended to bring amendments, it should endeavour to bring ease by making the law stronger and simplifying the procedure for lodging complaints so that women could come forward without any fear and lodge the complaints.

Additional Advocate General of Punjab Qasim Ali Chawhan assured the court that the provincial government would not weaken the law rather improve it. “We should be ashamed of if we cannot protect our womenfolk from being victimised or harassed,” Justice Saeed said.

The court summoned details of complaints received by the federal and provincial governments, as well as decisions taken on these complaints. The court also asked the provincial governments to provide legal assistance to it in interpreting the law.

The hearing was adjourned till the first week of March.

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2019