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Tackling Sexual Harassment, One Predator at A Time

Ali Zaidi writes about the prevalent attitudes about sexual harassment and abuse in society, tackles common criticisms, and elaborates on various laws in place to protect victims. 

Sexual harassment is a dark underbelly of our society, so much so that despite the widespread nature of various forms of sexual abuse and violence prevalent against women, children, transgenders and even men, the general public continues to live in a state of denial and aloofness from reality. It is not uncommon to come across even seemingly sensible and learned men and women casting shadows of doubt and suspicion whenever there are victims coming forward with their stories of harassment and abuse.

The recent news of a certain professor/lecturer committing suicide presents a good glimpse into the general mindset and attitudes prevailing in the society. Without getting into the merits of the matter, that certain professor/lecturer apparently took his life because of lack of cooperation on part of the college administration responsible for investigating the matter. They had failed to provide him with a clearance letter despite exonerating him from the allegations of sexual harassment.

The debate on mainstream media should have been centered around the laws, rules, regulations, mechanisms and the role of the administration of organisations handling investigations of sexual harassment. This unfortunately was not the case, and most of the debate on the mainstream media remained focused on the alleged and frankly imaginary cases of false allegations and personal grudges, creating a false and misleading perception in public of how this law is misused in Pakistan to harm the reputation of well-meaning, good-natured and loving men, as good women never come forward with their ordeals and only those with an axe to grind lodge complaints.

The truth cannot be farther from this. While it is true that this law, like any other law, is also susceptible to misuse and abuse and there may have been such incidents in the past, but then, every other law in Pakistan is susceptible to misuse and abuse.

We hardly see this kind of public outrage or whacky demands that the Pakistan Penal Code or the Code of Criminal Procedure be also struck down and all the inmates incarcerated in prisons be freed, despite the availability of plenty of evidence of misuse and abuse of these laws for personal gains. Why are such reactions only reserved for laws that aim to prevent and punish acts of sexual harassment and abuse and strive to provide an enabling environment to women, children and everyone in general?

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In deeply patriarchal societies, it is not unusual to expect these types of knee jerk reactions from the public in general and men in particular. The general public here is conditioned to deny the occurrence of these incidents.

The false and inflated sense of our so called moral and cultural uprightness and superiority blinds us to these occurrences. It hinders the ability of people to recognise sexual harassment and abuse in its true and ugly form as it exists in the country today.

When presented with compelling evidence, many people quickly resort to vile and ignorant justifications and indulge in victim blaming and shaming. To ease their cognitive dissonance, it is common to hear justifications like she must have been wearing very revealing clothes; she must have done something to attract this kind of attention because if a woman doesn’t allow, the abuse cannot happen; or she must have been out with males late at night etc. Such vile, ignorant and half-baked justifications only enable sexual predators and allow them to maintain their power and control over victims.

In Pakistan, like other developing countries, poverty, illiteracy and parochial cultural and moral outlooks present a fertile ground for such unfair and rigid social structures to remain in place. But this doesn’t mean that there is no progress and improvement in social outlooks and attitudes.

With the introduction of The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010, it became mandatory for all employers and organisations to adopt an anti-sexual harassment policy and to establish an Internal Inquiry Committee to deal with complaints arising from within the organization/employment. In addition to this, the law also prescribes that such complaints can also be made directly to the federal and provincial ombudsperson, whichever the case maybe. Under this law, various penalties for the perpetrators are provided, ranging from censure, demotion, fines, to removal and termination from service etc.

The Act also prescribes an obligation of the employer/organisation to provide psychological counselling and support to the complainants/employees in case they are in a state of trauma and shock. The afore-referenced Act relies on a liberal interpretation and meaning of the term ‘workplace’ and it can be taken to include educational institutes, hospitals, clinics etc.

Similarly, the Act also relies on a liberal interpretation and meaning of the term ‘Complainant’ which may be taken to include not just the employees but also students, patients, apprentice, interns and even outsiders having some kind of interaction with the employees of an organisation for official purposes.

While it is not a comprehensive anti-harassment law and only covers certain forms of interactions which fall within the meaning of workplace and official work, but still it offers an effective medium to those victims who earlier had nowhere to go and were helpless in such situations.

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Other forms of sexual harassment that may not fall within the ambit of the afore-referenced act can be dealt under Section 509-A of The Pakistan Penal Code 1860, which prescribes stricter punishments and a relatively wider scope to include sexual harassment at any place. A complaint under section 509-A can be made in the concerned police station and on its basis an investigation may ensue. In case any form of sexual harassment and abuse or blackmail is carried out on social media or through the use of technology, the complaint can also be made to the Federal Investigation Agency Cybercrime Wing under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016, whereby if found guilty the perpetrators can be sentenced between 1 to 7 years with fine, depending on the nature of offence.

In addition to the above-referenced authorities, the victims of sexual harassment and abuse can also reach MADADGAR National Helpline by dialing 1098, which is a collaborative project between LHRLA (Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid) and UNICEF. This is a 24-hour helpline that offers assistance and protection to the victims of sexual harassment and abuse ranging from counselling to legal aid and provision of shelter.

Over the last two decades, due to continual efforts from the members of the civil society, lawyers, lawmakers, NGOs and the international community, and with the advent of social media, an awareness and consensus regarding sexual harassment is beginning to form among the general public, but clearly there is still much work to be done till a conducive and enabling environment free from abuse and harassment is attained in Pakistan.

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