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Safe Workplaces For Women: How Will KP Tackle Sexual Harassment Cases?

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Maria Tabassum writes that sexual harassment is a grave problem in Pakistan and these incidents often go unreported because victims refuse to pursue cases against the perpetrators due to social restraints.


According to the Sixth Population and Housing Census 2017, women constitute nearly 49 per rave cent of the country’s population. Though nearly half of the tally, women make up only 24 per cent of the labour force. The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2018 data indicates that labour force participation rate for women is 24.8 per cent and the same is 82.5 per cent for men, which is over three times higher.

Women struggle to play their due role and fully contribute to the country’s development as the work environment in general is thorny and obstructive. They frequently face indecent behaviour and harassment in public transport, workplaces and in public places.

Successive governments have tried to increase the number of women employees over the years, but even the minimum employment quota of 10 per cent for women in the public sector remains unfilled. Despite the economic and social compulsions to earn an income, women brave multiple hurdles while working away from homes. All this compelled the legislators to sit and mull over the laws to address an issue which keeps on spiking despite being under reported in most cases.

Almost a decade ago in 2009, an amendment was made by the then Pakistan People’s Party-led government to section 509 of Pakistan Penal Code to protect all women in Pakistan against sexual harassment. Afterwards, Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act was passed in March 2010.

The purpose was to institute a code of conduct, which is an anti-sexual harassment policy, in every registered organisation as well as the public sector. Each organisation was required to form a three-member standing committee to deal with sexual harassment complaints in the organisation. After conducting an inquiry, the committee would recommend the punishment which the management would execute.

In case of the owner or a senior manager being implicated, an employee would have the choice of going outside the organisation and filing a complaint with a specially designated ombudsperson.

According to section 7 of the 2010 Act, governments were supposed to appoint ombudspersons at the federal and provincial levels to deal with sexual harassment complaints.

Mussarat Hilali, a judge at the Peshawar High Court, was appointed the first federal ombudsperson in this connection by the then prime minister on December 22, 2010. Sindh followed suit and named Justice (r) Syed Peer Ali Shah for the position in 2012. Justice (r) Shahnawaz Tariq was named the head later.

In Punjab, Dr Mira Phailbus was appointed the first ombudsperson in January 2013. She was succeeded by Farkhanda. At present, the position is held by Rukhsana Gillani.

In January this year, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) appointed a noted women rights activists Rukhshanda Naz as the first provincial ombudsperson to hear harassment complaints of women. Meanwhile, Sabira Islam assumed the charge of the first provincial ombudsperson for Balochistan in May. With this, the requirements of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act were completed.

Rukhshanda Naz joined her office on January 23 this year. She brings with her 26 years of experience of working with the reputed national and international rights-based organisations, especially those working for women’s political and economic empowerment along with raising voice for their other rights.

She has done LLB from the Khyber Law College, Peshawar, after which she completed her Masters in Peace and Reconciliation Studies from Coventry University in the United Kingdom, and LLM (Master of Law) in International Law from the Coventry University as well. She remained provincial head of KP and erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) at United Nations (UN) Women Pakistan from September 2010 to November 2011.

The ombudsperson was the field officer for Afghanistan and Pakistan at International Human Rights Law Group from 2000 to 2002.

She launched the regional office of Aurat Publication and Information Service Foundation in Peshawar in 1993 and headed it as a resident director and later chief operating officer for 16 years. She was also a consultant to Heinrich Böll Stiftung in 2018 and prepared policy paper on five per cent women quota on general seats in Pakistan under the project “Making Gender Quota Meaningful”.

On her return to Pakistan in the year 2014, she worked with Ministry of Human Rights to establish National Commission for Human Rights and later served the UNDP Pakistan as national technical advisor to strengthen national and provincial human rights machinery, including Women Political Caucuses.

She also collected testimonies of women from among the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from North and South Waziristan to amplify women voices from the grassroots which helped in the formulation of a national policy for IDPs.

In a detailed chat with this scribe, the ombudsperson talked about the functions of her office and the measures being taken to handle cases of sexual harassment of women at workplaces. She pinned high hopes on these efforts.

“The ombudsperson office is a grievance redress forum for inquiry and proceedings in cases of harassment. The complainant can be a woman or man and employees include regular or contractual, whether employed on hourly, daily, weekly or monthly basis and may include an intern or apprentice as well,” she said explaining the office functions.

Regarding the mode of working, she elaborated that after cases are accepted by her office, show cause notices are issued to the accused, a detailed hearing is conducted and finally a decision is announced. “It can penalise the offender if the charges are established. The office can impose a fine on a person ranging from Rs25,000 to Rs250,000, recommend a forced retirement order or even termination of a person from the job. The office can also take up appeals filed by any party against the decision of the inquiry committees.”

Enumerating the steps taken so far, the ombudsperson said more than 1,000 notices were issued to the government and private organisations, associations and corporations to notify their standing inquiry committees and adopt mandatory code of conduct prescribed in the law to address cases of sexual harassment.

When asked about the response from the government departments and private organisations, she acknowledged facing some problems initially but said things had started improving now. “Although the Act requires every organisation coming in the ambit of the law to form a three-member inquiry committee to probe the complaints within 30 days of its enactment, a number of them have failed to constitute the bodies and display the code of conduct at their workplaces,” she pointed out.

“After the ombudsperson office was put into operation in February this year, I sent a generic notice to all relevant organisations but got no response. I had to resend notices to offices and heads of institutions to comply with the law and provide me with the names of the inquiry committee members by July 31 or face legal action,” she said while pointing to the odds.

About the composition of the committee, the ombudsperson said: “It has three members; one of them must be a woman. But there can be two women and even all the three can be women as well. The law does not say that a man member must be a part of the committee. The committee should issue a notice to the harasser within three days of a complaint filing.”

Putting stress on the efficacy of the committees, she said: “These committees need to be strengthened in institutions. In this way, people can get justice without spending money and there would be deterrence as well if committees are active.”

Rukhshanda Naz felt there was resistant to the anti-harassment committees. “A few people are opposing the committees; others don’t want to be a witness in such cases while there are those who are not even willing to get their statements recorded. The office issues three summons and serves a contempt notice and fine a person if the charges are established,” she went on to say.

Of the tally of the harassment complaints received to date by her office, she said the count stood at 40 thus far and her office would soon conclude arguments in four such cases.

The ombudsperson said most of the harassment complaints were received from the two government departments – Health and Education.  “The complaints filed by employees working at various levels in these two departments are under process,” she said and added that cases taken up and decided were not publicised to save the harassment victims from any embarrassment.

Rukhshanda Naz said relevant government departments are extending cooperation to the ombudsperson office in accomplishing the tasks.” There are complaints of public harassment on cyber and we are in touch with the police department and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in addressing such complaints,” she said, and added that FIA had notified its own standing committee and focal person, asking the office to refer complaints involving cybercrime to them and the agency would keep referring harassment cases to the ombudsperson office.

When asked about the future activities planned for raising the capacity of the members of the law enforcement agencies (LEAs), she said, “Once the inquiry committees become fully functional, we will develop capacity and awareness among personnel of LEAs so that the work is done properly.”

A provincial Harassment Watch Committee has been notified and the labour and police departments have been included in it. “The committee has a focal person from every department. It was formed in 2015 but was able to convene only five meetings. The provincial ombudsperson office re-notified it, called its meeting and gave it a task.

As a result, the Provincial Commission on the Status of Women has taken upon the responsibility to report harassment cases in public transport while members representing the civil society organisations have taken up the issue of creating awareness about the law and building capacity of the inquiry committees to enforce the law and hear such complaints,” she explained.

There are plans to include awareness-raising contents in educational and training curricula to discourage the harassment of women. The contents would be included in the curriculum with the mutual consultation of elementary and secondary education, health and home departments.

Apart from efforts to stop harassment incidents, training women to deal with such situations was also among the priorities. “I have had discussions on the issue with Advisor to Chief Minister on Elementary and Secondary Education Ziaullah Bangash. After receiving his positive response, the work on the procedure is being done to give it a practical form,” she pointed out.

“The course contents would be prepared for girls from the eighth grade to the intermediate level to make them aware of harassment and the ways to cope with it. It would also be included in the training course designed for the women teachers. Most of the women are working in the health sector as well.  Hence these contents would be included in the curriculum being taught to the nurses. It would be incorporated into the training course of police. In the next two years, the laws to prevent gender violence would be included in the course of police training school,” she said.

Further, the ombudsperson said that after taking charge, she got 25 district attorneys and 33 district social welfare officers notified by their departments concerned to facilitate the complainants in these districts. First, orientation workshops were held for them. Now every district has two focal persons to facilitate the complaints under the law. She said the district attorneys are the people who are designated to work on the cases of human rights violations.

“It is a violation of human rights that someone harasses a person at his/her workplace. The district attorneys are acting as pro bono lawyers. These designated district attorneys have a responsibility to provide access to justice to the complainants who cannot afford it. If the case is not of harassment, it can be the case of some other human rights’ violation. Thus, a complainant can get legal assistance,” she went on to add.

Dwelling on the role of the designated social welfare officers, she said, “They have a responsibility to facilitate the complainants to reach the ombudsperson office. The social welfare officers act as a post office. If a complaint is received by them, they will see if the department concerned has an inquiry committee. Then they will report the matter to the ombudsperson office.”

Of the response of society to the law, she said that the stigma associated with the sexual harassment needs to be addressed. “I tell women that this office is not an operation theatre, so there’s no need to be scared,” she pointed out.

The ombudsperson lamented that women are reluctant to file written complaints. “In a case, it took me one month to explain things to a complainant in three sittings. And even after that, the woman was hesitant to file a written complaint. After submitting a written complaint, she called me and asked me not to issue summons to the alleged harasser,” she recalled.

“I kept waiting for her nod as I’m not a businessperson seeking clientage. I’m just here to facilitate them, but with their consent, as this is an appellate forum and taking suo moto notices is not in my jurisdiction,” she argued.

The ombudsperson office maintains a Facebook page where information about the law is posted in both Urdu and English languages. It contains all the other information about the jurisdiction of the office and the procedure for filing a complaint.

If someone does not want to file a complaint formally, this law offers a mechanism where their cases can be resolved in confidentiality within an organisation.

Though much is being done in terms of legislation and implementation of the law to curb harassment of women, yet the victims are reluctant to report such cases for fear of becoming a topic of discussion at the lunch breaks. There is a greater need to do away with the social mindset towards the issue. A problem can be solved only after accepting its prevalence, not by sweeping it under the carpet.

(The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist and can be reached at [email protected].)


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