Studies conducted by rights groups in Pakistan confirm the widespread occurrence of sexual harassment of women at the workplace. But the government is dragging its feet on introducing a legal framework to check the practice and ensure a safe working environment for half of the country's population.
Rights-based groups say the absence of laws that define sexual harassment as a punishable crime is resulting in an increase of such occurrences, causing tremendous mental and psychological agony to women employees in the formal and informal sectors.
"The right to live and work with dignity is an inalienable right of all people. Women, however, are denied this right, be it in agricultural fields or in corporate offices. Behavior that qualifies as sexual harassment restricts their active and effective participation in society according to their fullest potential," says Hadia Nusrat, an activist based in Islamabad.
A groundbreaking investigation on the issue was recently concluded by the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (AASHA), a group of nine civil society organizations in the country. Its report, "Situation Analysis - Sexual Harassment at the Workplace", says such harassment cuts across all boundaries - age, class and position. "Most working women in Pakistan at one time or another face this kind of violation of their rights from their colleagues, bosses or employers."
The report is based on interviews with nurses in private and public sector hospitals, domestic workers, women workers in agricultural fields and brick kilns, women employees at multinational companies, public and private sector organizations and retail outlets. Of 17 nurses (between 16 and 21 years) interviewed, 58 per cent faced sexual harassment by co-workers, patients or their relatives, and doctors. Only 11 per cent denied its existence while 29 per cent refused to talk.
Ninety-one per cent of the interviewed domestic workers (14 to 30 years) said they faced harassment from their employers. Similarly, 93 per cent of women employees in private and public sector organizations said they faced sexual harassment at the workplace. Most victims were dated by co-workers and employers, threatened when they refused to comply with sexual propositions by their bosses, and faced sexually suggestive comments, says the report.
At brick kilns and in agricultural fields the situation is particularly disturbing - the incidence of sexual harassment here is as high as 95 per cent. Interviewees said they faced harassment, or were raped and tortured by their employers.
The AASHA study, based on a small but diverse sample, is a manifestation of the magnitude of the issue affecting most women who are part of the active workforce. "Sexual harassment at workplaces is widespread and requires immediate government attention," says Nasrin Azhar, a long-time rights
activist, currently working with Action Aid Pakistan which is a part of AASHA.
Apart from the fact that sexual harassment is gender-specific discrimination, says Azhar, it is an exercise of male power based on economic position and authority at the workplace. "Fear of losing
a job or their career being stifled, prevents victims from reporting incidents of sexual harassment."
However, even those who muster enough courage to go public with their trauma find no justice; the country simply does not have the mechanism to deal with such cases. Besides, public, private and many not-for-profit organizations are also not prepared to address cases of sexual harassment if these are brought to their notice.
In 2002, Uzma Khan quit the NGO she worked for, when she saw that her employers were insensitive to the sexual harassment case she brought forward. Having been already humiliated by the government official (the accused) Khan felt further humiliated by the attitude of her colleagues, who asked her to hush up the matter because it involved a responsible government official on good terms with the NGO.
Instead of discussing the causes of malnutrition and child mortality - the purpose for which Khan met the government official, he was more interested in knowing how it feels when a mother breastfeeds her baby. "He was constantly asking about the pleasure a mother gets from the 'let down reflex'. I knew exactly where his line of questioning was leading...I just walked out in disgust," said Khan.
This is a typical case of sexual harassment that involved an aggressor whose behavior was ignored because of his position of power. In several such cases, victims are blamed for telling on male co-workers and employers if they report an occurrence. Says a spokesperson for AASHA, "The legal
procedures reinforce a woman's experience of humiliation, embarrassment and public exposure, thus isolating her further."
Meanwhile, the government is procrastinating - it is simply not moving on implementing the agenda of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) to which Pakistan is a signatory. The Ministry of Women's Development admits the need for a legal mechanism to check sexual harassment at the workplace. And it says it is aware of its responsibility to take measures under Article 19 of CEDAW to protect women from sexual harassment and Article 2 of the UN Declaration on Violence against Women that specifically mentions sexual harassment and intimidation at workplace.
On request of anonymity, an official of the ministry says, "It is a crucial problem that needs to be tackled. The ministry is currently working on a draft policy framework to deal with the issue, which is to be presented as soon as it is ready. But we cannot just introduce some law on our own, it has to clear the cumbersome bureaucratic procedures and attitudes of the male-dominated bureaucracy." But this is what the government has been saying for years.
This non-committal official response has prompted AASHA to prepare its own code to deal with the issue - the Code of Conduct for Gender Justice at the Workplace. It wants the government to adopt the Code and give it legal protection as it envisages the issue in its entirety - from reporting to investigation/enquiry, and punishment.
AASHA has prepared its Code following an exhaustive process of countrywide consultations with public and private sector organizations and also civil society groups. It has been prepared in line with the provisions of ILO Convention 100 (Equal Remuneration for Equal Value of Work), Convention 111
(Discrimination in Employment and Occupation) and with the relevant clauses of CEDAW. Pakistan is a signatory to all these international conventions.
But the military government - which discussed the adoption of the Code at a cabinet meeting last September - deferred a decision when various ministers raised objections on the wide scope of the definition of sexual harassment. "It would have also enabled women workers to lodge complaints against their male companions without having to disclose their identity, hence creating an atmosphere of distrust at the workplace. The cabinet asked the ministry to come up with more realistic and applicable ways to deal with the issue," confided an official of the Women's Development Ministry.
AASHA however, is undeterred. A spokesperson says, "We are lobbying with the private sector and civil society organizations to voluntarily adopt the Code. Our efforts have so far enabled 10 organizations to implement the Code, proving that it is workable and enforceable, unlike what the