President Asif Ali Zardari signing the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, 2010 during the ceremony at the presidency. - Photo by APP.

ISLAMABAD President Asif Ali Zardari signed on Tuesday the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill, 2010, aimed at providing a safe working environment.

The president signed the bill at a ceremony attended by some 100 women activists, parliamentarians and members of civil society organisations in the presidency.

He reiterated the government's commitment to ensuring equal rights for men and women in accordance with the Constitution.

“We have to create a Pakistan where the coming generations, my daughters, can be proud of the fact that they live as equals. We will make sure that those who wish to harm the ideology of the Quaid-i-Azam, which was for equality for men and women, shall not succeed,” he said.

The president, invoking the name of Benazir Bhutto, said “We shall do our utmost by the end of this tenure. All the rights that we enjoy as men shall be enjoyed by women as well.”He recalled the commitment made by Ms Bhutto at the Beijing Conference and in the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly) document, and urged the government to seek guidance from her vision to achieve gender equality.Mr Zardari recalled the struggle and sacrifices of Benazir Bhutto and said she was a symbol of strength, bravery and courage. “My wife was much stronger than me. She left a legacy for us to follow even she is guiding us from her grave.”

He said she coined the slogan “democracy is the best revenge” and said the whole philosophy of the Pakistan People's Party revolved around that phrase - that not revenge, but freedom is the revenge.

He mentioned how Ms Bhutto would have felt when she walked into Sukkur jail at the age of 21 as she tried to fight for her imprisoned father.

“Fighting like no other person I have ever seen. And throughout her life she made sure that the legacy which her father gave life for stayed alive.”

He said history might remember him as a person who was “living a woman's dream”. It was her dream that a woman in power would bring in the soft touch that the world needed amidst too much horror and said “what we need to emulate is gentleness, perseverance and the quality to bear pain”.

The president said both his sisters were members of parliament, while her two daughters would be back after completing their studies to serve the nation, along with their brother.

He paid rich tribute to the women who over the generations had strived for their rights since long and described them as “really a tribute to God's divine creation.”

He also lauded the role of women which they played in history and said all religions accord them due regard, dignity and honour.

“Let us mobilise the collective power of women to help make our country, the region and the world more tolerant and secure for all,” he said.

The bill aimed at creating a working environment for women free from harassment, abuse and intimidation, he added.

He thanked all those who supported the bill in both houses.

Mr Zardari said the struggle for the rights of women in Pakistan had been long and difficult.

“We believe in equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women,” he added.

“On this occasion I urge all ministries to get going and adopt the code of conduct within a month, as laid down in this act,” the president directed.

“I also urge the private sector to cooperate in the implementation of this act, in letter and spirit,” he said.

The bill was unanimously passed by the National Assembly on Jan 21 and by the Senate on Feb 26.

Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Social Welfare, recalled the process of drafting the legislation.

The Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (Aasha), a civil society organisation, which has been working on the issue, has described the signing of the bill a milestone for women.

Aqsa Khan of Aasha said “This is a true partnership of citizens and the government. We want the government to ensure its implementation.”

She said “Pakistan now stands as a leading country in South Asia for having a specific legislation against sexual harassment at workplace.”

Dr Fouzia Saeed, a woman activist who remained engaged with the process for two years, said “The government has honoured its commitment for a progressive social legislation. This is a breakthrough and we expect continued support to other such laws to make society more civilised and accountable.”

She said in a statement that women activists were thankful to Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Sherry Rehman, Raza Rabbani, Senate Chairman Farooq H. Naek and senior leadership of the PPP. She said they were also very proud of members of the Awami National Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and many progressive parliamentarians of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q and the PML-N.

Overcoming years of conservative opposition, the National Assembly passed the bill to punish harassment of women at workplaces, though last-minute amendments extended the protection to men as an apparent compromise.

Punishment for the guilty, or violators of a code of conduct, will range from a censure to dismissal to an unspecified fine under the law.

The law defines harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal and written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with the work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or is made condition for employment.”

All organisations, including federal and provincial government ministries, departments, corporations, educational institutions, private commercial organisations and registered civil society associations, will be required to constitute inquiry committees of at least three members each - one of them a woman - to probe complaints and give their findings within 30 days to the competent authority concerned that will award recommended penalties.

Minor penalties will be censure, withholding for specified periods of promotion or increment and stoppage at an efficiency bar in the time-scale, other than fitness to cross such bar, and recovery of compensation payable to a complainant from pay or any other source of the accused.

Major penalties are demotion to a lower post or time-scale or to a lower stage in a time-scale, compulsory retirement, removal from service, dismissal from service, and fine, a part of which can be used as compensation for the complainant. “In case of owner (found guilty), the fine shall be payable to the complainant.”

An inquiry committee may recommend to an ombudsperson for appropriate action against a complainant whose allegations are found to be false and made with mala fide intentions while a party aggrieved by the decision of the competent authority may prefer appeal to the ombudsperson to be appointed by the federal or a provincial government.

Appeals against the decisions of an ombudsperson at the federal level can be made to the president and at provincial level to the governor concerned.

The statement of objects and reasons, accompanying the law, “is to create a safe working environment for workers which is free of sexual harassment, abuse and intimidation” with a view to enabling higher productivity and better quality of life at work.

“Sexual harassment is one of the biggest hurdles faced by working men and women, preventing many from working to get themselves and their families out of poverty,” the law says.



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