About five years ago, the Women Worker’s Help Line (WWHL) general secretary of the time, Bushra Khaliq, received an unexpected phone call. It was one of her employees, a young woman, who had traveled to Islamabad that day for a six-day training seminar along with a male colleague. This colleague, the woman told Khaliq on the phone that night, was the reason she was calling. She was reporting, unofficially, a case of sexual harassment.
The woman went on to tell Khaliq that her co-worker had begun making advances toward her on the bus ride they shared, sitting side by side, not stopping even when she told him she felt uncomfortable. Upon reaching the hotel where they were staying, and where the training was to be held, she was further disturbed when he insisted the hotel desk workers change their room bookings and place them together in one room. The girl, shocked, was equally insistent that they sleep apart, and after much argument the man relented and the two went to their separate rooms.
When Khaliq received the call later that evening, she told her employee not to worry – she would come to Islamabad herself first thing in the morning. “I joined the training seminar as another member from WWHL; I didn’t tell the boy why I was really there,” Khaliq said.
Upon arrival, she quietly noted down the girl’s story in detail. She also collected signed statements from the two hotel personnel who were at the reception desk when the argument had occurred, who affirmed the woman’s story. Upon returning to Lahore, Khaliq opened an official enquiry, as per WWHL’s sexual harassment policy, creating a three-person committee and going on to question the accused.
At first, the man feigned surprise. “She is like my sister,” he insisted. By the second meeting however, once the formal complaints and signed witness statements had been put in front of him, the accused began to become more flustered. He didn’t know what to say.
“Whenever anyone joined WWHL, we held a large meeting,” Khaliq told Pakistan Today, remembering the hiring of the man in question. “We would have a long discussion about our policies and code of conduct, and sexual harassment was openly and very clearly described.” Every employee, she said, should have known their zero tolerance stance on the issue. And for an internationally recognised organisation, whose main objective is resolving working women’s issues and supporting many forms of women’s rights activism, such an incident was particularly unacceptable. The accused was given a major penalty: dismissal from his job, and although he wept and pleaded, the strict zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment was maintained.
Sexual Harassment in the Law:
When this incident took place, sexual harassment was not, and never had been, defined in Pakistan’s laws. Yet thanks to the efforts of the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA), an umbrella of various NGOs that was formed in 2001, many organisations from both the public and private sector had adopted a formal code of conduct and system for dealing with reported incidents. This code had been developed by AASHA and, as Khaliq explained it, was so practical and easy to understand that within 2 or 3 years, more than 300 organisations had adopted it.
AASHA’s work went on to lay the foundation for the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, which was passed by parliament in March 2010. The bill made it mandatory for all organisations, in all sectors, to adopt the code of conduct it detailed. They were to create a three-person standing committee, with at least one female member, which would investigate all reports of harassment incidents (as in the case related above). Parliament also amended section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code, making sexual harassment illegal not only in the workplace but also in public spaces and within the home.
Implementation: Successes and Failures:
Speaking about the implementation of the new act in workplaces across the country, Maliha Hussain, the director of AASHA’s offspring organisation, Mehergarh, said “It’s a process.” The federal government, she said, was, surprisingly, one of the first to respond. The Pakistan Business Council, which includes the 40 biggest companies in the country, has also committed to 100% compliance with the bill. Also of note is the banking sector, which has taken the issue quite seriously after the State Bank of Pakistan sent out a directive to all banks in the country to comply with the law.
Other organisations, particularly within the public sector, have been less effective in instituting and enforcing the act.
In September 2010, the National Implementation Watch Committee, which was created to monitor the implementation of the new law, recommended that the prime minister send out a formal notification about it to all government organisations. While this led to the creation of the required enquiry committees in many places, it did not always create safer environments for women workers.
An Example of Poor Protection:
Only last week, a female medical officer in Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) reported a case of sexual harassment against five men, including senior medical officers within the airline. This is not the first time that the national carrier has been in the news for issues with harassment.
In October 2011, a female pilot in PIA filed a writ petition in the Lahore High Court accusing higher officers in the airline of sexually harassing their subordinates and co-workers. The woman had turned to the courts after PIA’s standing committee had failed to take action.
According to a PIA official, who chose to remain anonymous, another case that was filed within the company earlier this year is still pending, over three months later, with no action being taken. According to the rules set out by the 2010 Act, enquiry committees are supposed to submit their report within 30 days, and their recommendations should be implemented within another week.
Commenting on the reasons why the airline has been slow to act in such cases, the PIA official suggested nepotism and the abuse of powerful connections, saying “nobody gets terminated or suspended here”.
The Shapes and Forms of Workplace Harassment
In the 2011 case of harassment within PIA, the complainant reported that the harassers abused their positions of power by demoting or even firing female workers who did not comply with their demands and advances. This kind of retaliation to resistance is common in sexual harassment cases, Hussain explained.
“In offices, harassment often starts as unwanted verbal or written sexual advances. Then, when they are refused, these men start retaliating by creating a hostile environment for the woman. They give them additional work or unrealistic deadlines, refuse to promote them, and even scold and shout at them while they work.”
All of this, Hussain said, has a serious negative impact on the woman’s ability to do her job. Giving an example, she said “A woman might be working at her computer, and her boss might come up behind her to show her how to do something. He’ll get too close, bend over her, put his hands on her shoulder or thighs. Little things like that are very uncomfortable for the woman, and over time, it gets very serious.” The woman might start anticipating the unwanted touching, and find it harder and harder to focus on her work while her boss might be around. But because she is afraid to lose her job, Hussain said, she doesn’t speak out. She keeps taking the harassment and in the meantime, the damage to her work and to her own psychological well-being is severe.
Enquiry Committees as a Tool for Justice:
By creating a standing enquiry committee from the members of the workplace itself, the 2010 Act aimed to provide a safe space for women to report incidents of harassment without fear of retaliation or judgement. Should a complainant find that the committee members are unfairly biased, however, she can appeal her case directly to the ombudsperson in the area.
According to Hussain, creating a strong and trustworthy enquiry committee is the most important tool to dealing with harassment within an organisation. “Even in cases where there is no evidence or witnesses to back up a complainant’s story,” she said, “good committee members can find out the facts.” Because they are colleagues themselves, of both the complainant and the accused, these men and women are usually the best judges of the veracity of a charge. “They talk to all the people in and around the case, and more often than not someone has noticed something, or the harasser has talked about the incident with his friends,” she said.
Responsibility of Committees to Catch False Rulings
In another harassment case, recounted by Ms Hussain, the enquiry committee had to use their intimate knowledge of the workplace and the people involved to make a just ruling. In this incident, a woman working at a TV news station filed a charge against her manager. The enquiry committee, when they investigated the incident, actually discovered that the woman had only been recently hired, and that only because she had a connection within the company. Since then, her work had been consistently poor, and she was not promoted. When a new manager was posted, the woman asked for a promotion. After looking at her performance, however, he decided not to grant it to her, and the woman charged him with harassment soon after.
“The committee talked to her colleagues, they looked at her work and how she conducted herself within the organisation, and decided the case against her,” said Hussain. “It is important that neither men nor woman get hurt in the process, and committees are responsible for that,” she said.
While the possibility of false charges, such as the one in this case, is very real, most people would agree that the implementation of sexual harassment laws in the workplace has done a tremendous amount of good.
A lawyer from AGHS Legal Aid Cell said she believed 95 percent of reported harassment cases are genuine. “This is a big issue for women in Pakistan,” she said. “This law has created special committees in hundreds of workplaces, and that’s a big step.”
And while it would seem, as in the case described above, that the only danger to men in the workplace is the possible abuse of this law, it is important to note that sexual harassment can occur with both sexes.
Sexual Harassment is a Two-Way Street
Men who have been sexually harassed, however, usually don’t report their abuse. “The problem is all the pressure our society puts on men,” Hussain explained.
“They are made to believe they are supposed to be brave and strong, the protectors of women. How then, if they are meant to protect, can they admit to being harassed themselves?” A space needs to be created, she said, for men to speak out without humiliation or stigmatization. The 2010 Act addressing sexual harassment, despite the word “women” in its title, applies to all sexes. And while it has not yet induced men to come forward with their possible harassment, it has effectively dealt with thousands of cases (according to Mehergarh’s research) nationwide.