A century’s struggle By Amber Darr - Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/03/08/a-centurys-struggle.html

“I declare to you that woman must not depend upon the protection of man, but must be taught to protect herself…” — Susan B. Anthony

(American civil rights’ activist)

ONE hundred years ago today, the first International Women’s Day was celebrated as the ‘International Working Women’s Day’ to draw attention to the poor conditions for working women in the wake of rapid industrialisation.

Over the years, the day came to be observed in most countries as an occasion for expressing appreciation, respect and love for women as well as marking their economic, political and social achievements.

Pakistan has followed suit and celebrates International Women’s Day each year. However, it was only in 2010 that the legislature enacted the first law exclusively in the interests of working women: the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010.

The act purports to provide women working in the public or private sector a mechanism through which to challenge incidences of sexual harassment at the workplace. The act defines ‘harassment’ as including any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or sexually demeaning attitudes causing interference with performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. It defines ‘workplace’ as including any place of work, building, factory or a geographical area where an employer carries on its activities and includes any situation that is linked to official work even if likely to occur outside the office.

However, the solutions that the act provides for sexual harassment are cumbersome: it requires every ‘organisation’ (which includes, by definition, federal or provincial ministries, corporations, companies, educational institutions, medical facilities, civil society associations etc.) to establish a three-member inquiry committee, of which at least one member must be a woman. The committee may initiate proceedings upon receipt of a complaint which it must then complete within 30 days and recommend to the ‘competent authority’ a penalty, which may range from censure to payment of fine or dismissal from service.

The work of the committee appears to be supplemented by federal and provincial ombudsmen who, when appointed, may entertain direct complaints from employees, hear appeals against orders of the committee or the competent authority or even take action against a complainant who acts without any basis and with malice.

The act also prescribes a code of conduct for employers and makes it incumbent upon them to suitably publicise and fully implement it within their organisations. Disappointingly however, the code sets out yet another procedure for tackling complaints, this time an informal one, which leaves a strong impression that it may be in the greater interests of employees to adopt this procedure rather than the more conspicuous route offered by either the inquiry committee or the ombudsman.

Despite its lofty aims and elaborate procedures the act does not fully address the problem of sexual harassment in Pakistan particularly because it makes no provision for the countless women employed in the informal sector even though it was enacted in the wake of the widely reported and explicitly sexual murders of two housemaids, Shazia Masih (January 2010) and Kiran George (March 2010).

Furthermore, despite the passage of a year since its enactment, the efficacy of the act remains untested. The federal government has only recently framed rules of procedure for the inquiry committees and as yet there is no evidence that any such committees have been constituted anywhere in Pakistan. The identity of the ‘competent authority’ is unclear and no ombudsmen, either federal or provincial, have so far been appointed.

The government’s neglect in implementing the act, begs the question, whether the act was really for the welfare of working women or merely to bolster the image of the ruling party?

It is interesting to note that India, with all its cultural similarities with Pakistan, does not have a law on the subject. However, in the leading case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan AIR 1997 SC 3011 the Indian Supreme Court not only recognised sexual harassment as an independent offence and laid down its parameters but also stipulated guidelines for addressing sexual harassment.

These guidelines mandated all employers, whether in the public or private sector, to take appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, to constitute a complaints committee to be headed by a woman and of which half the members were to be women and required employers to prominently notify the guidelines to create awareness of the rights of female employees.

In doing so, not only did the Supreme Court achieve objectives very similar to those of the act but also established a legal precedent which was effectively followed in Apparel Export Promotion Council v. AK Chopra 1999 SC 625 where the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of a superior officer of this Delhi-based council, who had been found guilty of sexual harassment of a subordinate female employee at the place of work on the ground that it violated her fundamental right to life as guaranteed under Article 21 (which incidentally is comparable to Article 9 of the constitution of Pakistan) of the constitution of India.

The Indian experience in this regard suggests not only that laws alone do not provide effective protection to women but also that it is not protection but rather empowerment that women really need in order to raise their voices against sexual harassment and exploitation, particularly at the workplace.

Achieving such empowerment is, however, only possible when women become actors of change and are able to chart and determine the path of their lives — with the active support and participation of men rather than in conflict with them. Such a change calls for a clear, committed and sustained effort implemented at the very grassroots level as well as a shift in cultural representations of women, rather than the mere passage of a law which has little hope of becoming a social reality.

The writer is an Islamabad-based barrister.


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