Often a complaint can create even more problems for the woman being harassed
Data on the number of women affected by harassment is hard to come by since there is no law under which cases can be registered; this means estimates are anecdotal at best. One of my friends, Mahnoor Khan from Karachi, worked at a Communities Base for NGO in Nazim Abad, Karachi. She faced even more problems after she filed a complaint against the NGO managing director, Irfan Ahmed.
‘He would call me late at night, stare me down during meetings and eventually he started cutting out my daily basis reports that I had worked on. I see about 80 to 90 women per year affected because of harassment during office time.’
I am doctor, working for the last two years in a medical field in Turkey, but whenever I come to Pakistan and see the situation I am deeply shocked by the lack in our laws and the invisibility of those people who claim that we want equality for women.
I want to share some cases with you. I admit that the numbers may not reveal the actual situation as many are unwilling to admit they have been targeted.
‘It’s difficult to get exact figures because few women have access to us and because many women believe that the fault lies with them. That a woman normally lures the man and that if she is dressed a certain way she will be harassed and so on. Any woman who reports harassment always mentions what she was wearing.’
Ghazal Naaz, who worked at the Peshawar office of an International Non-Governmental Organization (INGO), spent her days in fear and unease, dreading the inevitable moment when her senior male colleague would brush up against her. He would always claim that he was trying to explain a work-related matter to her. In addition, for over a year she had been subjected to other objectionable behaviors such as ogling and unwanted text messages and calls. When she did not reciprocate, the colleague became vengeful. On at least three occasions he had written anonymous letters to the management, accusing her of having illicit relationships with men at the office. As a result, Ghazal Naaz’s work suffered and she was constantly stressed out, even when not at the office.
The three tiers of management above her, including her direct boss and the country director, believed her but had no idea how to handle the issue.
‘I had told my boss that I was being harassed by my colleague,’ she says, ‘but since there was no existing policy against sexual harassment, they didn’t know how to help.’
The administration finally found an indirect way to fix the situation.
Ghazal Naaz’s plight may sound familiar to many others because harassment in the workplace is, to date, not recognized as a punishable offence in Pakistan. Because of this, coupled with the lack of awareness about the issue, many women do not get as much support as she enjoyed in similar situations. In fact, often a complaint can create even more problems for the woman being harassed. I was reading the story of Fiza Begum, who was working in office and was constantly insulted and physically assaulted by her boss, at times in front of her husband. One day, when her supervisor was upset at her for leaving work early, Fiza Begum and the men of her household were beaten up and her clothes were torn.
The second part of a government effort aims to address situations, such as Fiza Begum’s, where the victim is not part of a formal organization that falls under the purview of the sexual harassment bill.
Of course it will still not be easy to prove harassment unless the incident is witnessed by other people or there is other tangible proof, but at least the offender, if found guilty, can now be punished under the law.
However, there is now hope of some improvement in this situation in the shape of the two legal frameworks — an anti-sexual harassment bill (the Protection against Harassment at the Workplace Act 2009) and proposed amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). The latter will also result in amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to incorporate the punishments specified in the PPC amendment. If the bill and the amendments are passed by parliament, they may go a long way in helping those who are at the receiving end of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Dr Fouzia Saeed, a founding member of the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA, an umbrella group of six NGOs formed in 2001), assisted in drafting a code of conduct for the workplace, which has served as the foundation for the anti-harassment bill. She says the much-needed bill and amendments will protect both men and women. According to her, a number of politicians, some associated with the law and women development ministries, worked for the bill.
The final version of the bill was presented to the government in March 2008 and approved by the cabinet in principle in November 2008. After making some changes, the cabinet formally approved it in February 2008. It was then tabled in the National Assembly in April 2008 and handed over to the law and women’s development committees.
My friend Wajid Ali Khan, the ex-Supervisor of NGO, told me, ‘the employee can go directly to the committee or to his or her supervisor who can then forward the complaint to the committee.’ The employer is also meant to make logistical adjustments so that the accused and the complainant do not interact with one another and retaliation from the accused is meant to be ‘strictly monitored’. The bill also sets out procedures for holding inquiries as well as penalties for minor and major offences, ranging from mild reprimands to firing the accused. It addresses appeals against penalties and provides for an ombudsman, who is to be appointed by the law ministry at the provincial level. This person is tasked with ensuring that the entire process is being carried out fairly, especially when the head of an organization is the accused. Both the victim and the accused have direct access to the ombudsman.
The bill makes it clear that the committee has 30 days to come up with a verdict as well as a penalty, if any. After this, the organisation’s management is given a week to implement the penalty, such as, for example, firing or demoting the guilty party. Within a month, any aggrieved party can also appeal to the ombudsman, who has a month to decide the case. As an added protection, any employee can take their company to court for not following the formal procedure laid out in the bill and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees can be imposed on the organisation. The complaint mechanism covers the nature of the remedy and includes psychological and other compensatory and appeal mechanisms. For women outside the formal workplace, who often have dire financial need, the situation can be tougher.
As a Police Officer of the ICT, Islamabad says, ‘it will at least . . . allow people to register a case as the amendment will criminalize such acts.’ To file a complaint, one would register a first information report (FIR) which the police would take to a district court.
This is, however, not the only drawback of the amendments and the bill. Clarifying the types and degrees of harassment would have been helpful, especially in the bill, which has a fairly broad definition. What do ‘sexual advances’, ‘sexual favors’ and ‘physical conduct of a sexual nature’ exactly mean? In addition, critics point out that the bill does not distinguish rape from sexual harassment in the workplace.
Writer: Dr. Sahar Khattak
The writer hails from Nowshera. She is a medical officer (ophthalmologist) at PIMS, Islamabad.
THE PASHTUN TIMES