Sexual harassment is defined as a breach of a person’s dignity and personal autonomy.
Our government has put rules and regulations in place that protect individuals from such an intrusion. Infact, March 2019 marked the 9th anniversary of the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010.
The legislation was enacted with the objective of protecting women from harassment at the workplace and to create effective mechanisms regarding their complaints. The law was meant to provide relief against acts of harassment to any women.
However, a close examination of the implementation of the law in Pakistan suggests that it leaves room for loopholes.
Under Pakistani law, harassment is defined as ‘any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or is made a condition for employment.’
Within the definitions that outline the law, only men and women are mentioned. Rather than concentrating on gendered pronouns, the law should choose gender neutral lanuage. This should done for a number of reasons. For one, women are not the only victims of sexual harassment. Men too face sexual harassment, and should not be excluded. The law also overlooks the third gender; transgender persons are completely ignored within the law. It must embrace the recently adopted Trans persons (Protection of Rights) Act, and allow the transgender person to also file complaints.
Another loophole noticed within the law is that it appears the law does not cover situations where employees of two different organizations are involved. If such two employees interact in the ordinary course of business and the interaction gives rise to an act of sexual harassment, this does not count as harassment in legal terms. But harassment isn’t just limited to direct boss-employee relationships, and the law should reflect that.
The law also does include household staff or those working in agriculture or within the informal labour sector. Shops and establishments that are not registered are also outside the domain of this law. As a result, only in certain situations and workplaces are harassment cases legible for prosecution.
The definition of an “organization” within the law is also pretty restrictive. Within the District Government, it only covers educational institutions and medical facilities. In the private sector, it does not cover agriculture, livestock, dairy farms and establishments that are not registered. Thus, unorganized sectors are outside the scope of this Act, allowing for certain workplaces to be unprotected and unsafe. Also, students in schools, colleges or universities are not protected under this law.
Oddly enough, the inquiry committee constituted under the Act comprises of employees of the very same organization. Therefore, chances are that the members of the inquiry committee probably will not have any experience or training in dealing or inquiring into cases of workplace harassment. And being a part of the work space makes them susceptible to bias.
In Punjab, 134 cases reached the ombudsperson during the last five years and the office received 98 complaints after 2014. Data by the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) and the ombudsperson’s office states that 38% of these cases were withdrawn, 43% accused received punishment and the suspects in 18 percent of cases were exonerated.
The Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010 is a step in the right direction. It partially fulfills the legal obligations of the Government towards women empowerment and international labor standards. However, the legislation suffers from severe limitations as well as implementation deficit.
With increasing awareness and accountability, hopefully this law will be updated, giving the people of Pakistan the security and justice they deserve.