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Pakistan: An Update on the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill

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In 2009 Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's former information minister, proposed the Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act and amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). This was approved in March 2010 by President Asif Ali Zardari. Recommendations were made by Dr. Fouzia Saeed, a founding member of the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA), an umbrella group of six NGOs formed in 2001, who assisted in drafting a code of conduct for the workplace, which served as the foundation of the anti-harassment bill. In the political ring, Pakistan Peoples Party's senator Raza Rabbani supported the bill, as did Shehnaz Wazir Ali, who took over after Sherry Rehman stepped down from office.

The Protection Against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act requires that all organizations adopt the Code of Conduct. In the event that an organization does not comply, any of their employees can report to the court, and the organization can be fined anywhere from Rs.25,000 to Rs.100,000, which is too small for any powerful organization. However, Maliha Husain, program director of Mehrgarh and AASHA, said, "If an organization is fined, it is not just about the money. Organizations have a reputation also, like people. No organization wants their name to come in the media saying that this organization or company was fined for non-compliance, so the charge puts a pressure on them to comply."

This bill was formalized in 2010, one year on, and the response to it from some institutions has been precocious: for example, a four-member committee at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad took strict action against two faculty members who were accused of sexually harassing female students. After a rigorous, 30-day review of the case, both faculty members have been removed, one with a termination letter and the other with a forced retirement. Not only was this the first time that such action was taken within the university, but it followed similar steps taken first by Punjab University and then by the University of Peshawar.

Although the media coverage may have played an important role in keeping the case under the spotlight, Husain says that "the media will have to be sensitive. If they are not careful, they can hurt the process also."

Given that sexual harassment is less about sex and more about power play and abuse of power, an Ombudsperson's office was created specifically for this law, so that if a complainant is facing a powerful harasser within the organization and the Inquiry Committee is not be able to hold him or her accountable, the complainant can go directly to the Ombudsperson. In addition, a website has been developed to monitor compliance of organizations nationwide: sexualharassmentwatch.org. In some instances in which the complainants are not satisfied with the way their Inquiry Committee is handling the case, they have contacted AASHA, who facilitate the process.

According to AASHA, federal ministries, hospitals and banks are in the forefront of complying with the act, but leaked cases made public in the media suggest that universities, too, are entering the fold of protection against sexual harassment. Husain says:

The government's response has been better than we expected. Most of the federal ministries have adopted the Code. Provincial governments are working on it also, quite enthusiastically. We are having some issues with organizations like PIA, who are not taking this law seriously, and we have not been able to get to the military yet.

With regard to the military, Husain says AASHA has tried contacting them numerous times but have been unsuccessful in getting through to any one relevant person. Pakistan International Airline has been recalcitrant. In 2010 a PIA female pilot was harassed by a male pilot. This case is still pending, and according to Husain, "PIA management tends to side and support the accused." Husain said, "Sexual harassment is very common there, and their management is not taking it seriously. We have tried working with them a number of times, and they're not handling it properly; they've made a commitment but are not doing it the way it's supposed to be done."

Another point of contention has been the weary response from the media. Husain says that besides GEO and Dawn, other TV channels are culpable, given their otherwise (and at times aggressive) "watchdog role." "You know TV channels judge everybody else, but they don't seem to look at themselves," she adds.

A recent research study of four exemplary organizations that had adopted the Code includes Attock Refinery Limited (ARL). But according to Mrs. Siddiqui, ARL's assistant manager of staff affairs, there are certain contextual reasons for which it realistically takes two to three years before the Code can come in to full effect: "Simply speaking but keeping in view various constraints in our society, it's difficult to adopt and successfully make people understand the issues. They still need to understand the spirit of the issue."

But since the adoption of the Code in 2005, she says it has been useful: "Since then, five cases have come to light, out of which four have been dealt with successfully." The last one was "controlled," because it involved a powerful individual.

Sadaf Ahmad, assistant professor of Anthropology at LUMS University and a researcher on the effectiveness of the Code of Conduct, said, "The cases that were brought to the inquiry committee in the organizations I looked at (ARL, BASF-The Chemical Company, GEO TV, The Working Women's Help Line) were handled very seriously, and the perpetrator had to face the consequences of his action whenever the harassment was proved. This had led to the perpetrator being fired on more than one occasion."

On the flip side, harassment against men is rarely spoken about, let alone brought forward in the form of a complaint or case. Husain blames the lack of response on the stigma attached to men when concepts of masculinity are attacked: "We know men, boys get harassed at mosques, hotels and other places, but it takes a lot of courage for men to speak up about it -- if they do."

The QAU case and others suggest that the Code of Conduct has come into effect and mechanisms are in place for recourse, but it's worrying to see Pakistan's most influential institution, the military, and the only national airline, behave casually on the issue. So whether or not a fine or even the threat of a tarnished reputation can affect the mammoth institutions is yet to be seen. Ultimately, if powerful institutions use their influence to escape accountability, then organizational rectitude shown by some organizations is bound to be compromised.