Work-place harassment against women


Sheikh Abdur Rasheed

A few months ago, with the objective for creating awareness among the public, especially women, about protecting women against harassment at workplace, the Office of the Provincial Ombudsman Sindh organised a seminar at Shikarpur. The Ombudsman and other concerned officials highlighted the spate of incidents of harassment, and expressed concern on the existence of this issue that has reached endemic proportions in our society. Regrettably, due to certain unavoidable circumstances, only a few occurrences of harassment are reported.
Amidst other incidents of human rights violations that take place in our society, those of violation of rights and honour of women have been happening rampantly. It has become difficult for a large number of womenfolk to freely breathe in the male-dominated structure of society. At most workplaces women are harassed but mostly, incidents of harassment against women occur in health and education sectors, and in private factories and industries. It is observed that at workplaces women are usually harassed by acquaintances, co-workers, customers, clients or patients. As a result, due to the existence of this immoral activity, many women finding no other way silently give up their jobs even they need the job to earn money for their families or themselves.
Every year on March 8, the celebration of the International Women’s Day is aimed to inspire women and girls across the world to achieve their ambitions; call for gender-balanced leadership, respect and value difference; and develop more inclusive and flexible cultures or root out workplace bias. Despite the fact that in our society women play a vital role in social, economic, cultural and political development, they have been denied parity in every field of life. They have been deprived of their due honour and value that they must enjoy in society.
One of the most shocking things that further complicates the situation is that many of the victims tolerate harassment and sweep it under the carpet in order to avoid creation of an intimidating, degrading or offensive environment. Female victims repeatedly say that they feel unable to rock the boat for fear of damaging their careers or even losing their jobs.
It is pertinent to mention here that deviant behaviours at workplace such as any unwelcome sexual advance; request for sexual favour or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature; or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with 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 a condition for employment come in the sphere of harassment against women.
In the male-dominated, patriarchal structure society that we live in, men are trained from an early age to feel a sense of superiority over women and to objectify women. Women, in their minds, are supposed to do only household duties and to stay at home. In Pakistani society the existence of a very misogynistic culture that endorses violence against women is the most extreme conclusion of a belief cultivated over thousands of years that women are submissive and exist only to satisfy men. The perception of male superiority gives the men confidence to treat women offensively without fear of consequences and accountability.
To prevent sexual harassment against women, the government of Pakistan enacted a new law titled Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010, and also amended section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860. Surprisingly, this is the first time sexual harassment has been defined through a legislative instrument as before this addition in the law there was no clear definition of harassment, whether in public, private or at the workplace.
Under the amended Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code, insulting the modesty of women or sexually harassing them is a crime. Perpetrators of such crime may be punished with imprisonment, which may extend to three years, or be fined up to Rs 500,000 or both. Regrettably, the section still contains loopholes because this crime is bail-able and compoundable.
Furthermore, due to lack of implementation on the Act and the Section, the practice is carried on unimpeded in our society. After facing disappointment in getting justice, even after running from pillar to post, the victimised women quit their much-needed jobs.
This is the gloomy reality of situation: the Act was enacted in 2010, and committees were formed after the enactment of the law, but no satisfactory results have been brought about so far. To achieve fruitful results, an effective mechanism of implementation is to be brought about in order to provide security to women at workplaces and create a harassment-free environment for women all over the country. Moreover, mass awareness campaigns should be initiated by government in collaboration with media outlets, human rights organisations and civil society members to educate citizens to take a stand against perpetrators of all forms of violence against women.