The International Women’s Day falls tomorrow (March 8). This day is celebrated every year all over the world as well as in Pakistan where conscious attempts are being made to empower women and bring them into the mainstream for the economic development of the country.
Though there is a lot to be done, the good thing is there is a realisation among different stakeholders that women’s participation is a must to take the country to the road to progress. No doubt, it is illogical to even think that we can compete with the world without the contribution of almost half of our population.
So, the question is as to what are the factors that are discouraging women in Pakistan from joining the labour force in large numbers. The inhibiting social factors are definitely there but there is a need to look deeper into the more serious issues that make workplaces unsafe and in-conducive for women. It is a pity that even those women who join the labour force against all odds are quite often not welcomed and have to face difficulties while working with their male colleagues.
This not just a perception and has empirical evidence as well. For example, in trainings on leadership and paralegal skills for trade union members in 2013 and 2014, 80 per cent of the participants identified harassment as the main issue they face at work. These trainings were conducted under an International Labour Organisation (ILO) project on Promoting Gender Equality for Decent Employment (GE4DE), funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
Similarly, in a survey of 5,000 working women conducted by the Women Development Department (WDD) Punjab in 2012, workplace harassment was the second highest issue identified by respondents that hampered their participation at work. Lack of transport was the first and the lack of facilities like separate toilets for women and negative social attitudes were the joint third.
Another observation is that women constitute only two per cent membership of the trade unions in Pakistan and this figure does not even include informal economy of which more than 70 per cent are women. The women remain unorganised and largely unaware of their rights, rendering them unable to demand even basic protection from the government and their employers in public and private sectors. The general lack of awareness about the available redressal mechanisms has also led the potential women workforce untapped and the existing generally disturbed.
It was against this backdrop that they started to work with the Federal Ombudsman’s Secretariat against Harassment in the Workplace (FOS), says Razi Mujtaba Haider, Programme Officer, GE4DE. He says the project worked at three levels to create awareness and action against workplace harassment. It also worked with the FOS to develop an online complaints and SMS-based tracking system along with a dedicated website to facilitate complainants from all over the country. The FOS provides a highly efficient evidence-based mechanism to decide cases of harassment. Complaints can be filed by visiting the website fos-pah.gov.pk and the status of under process cases can be obtained by sending sms at at 8999.
The launch of this online system was followed by a series of awareness raising sessions all around the country reaching almost 1,600 workers and 400 employers. The training reached 496 participants in 2013, 615 participants in 2014 and 468 participants in 2015. Using the same model of the 19 awareness workshops supported by the project, FOS used its own funds to conduct 70 more similar sessions in 2014. The outreach of the FOS workshop was approximately 5,000 participants through 100 workshops conducted throughout the country.
Feedback from the sessions taken three to six months after the workshop shows that more than two thirds of all participants have taken some action to address workplace harassment in their workplaces, whether it is training other workers about the issue or setting up anti-harassment committees as mandated by law, says Razi.
He points out that as awareness about the Harassment at the Workplace Act 2010 increases, the number of complaints, both through conventional means and though the online system, is steadily increasing, and more importantly, being processed within sixty days of application. More than 339 complaints have been received so far until January 2016 out of which 332 have been decided and only 7 complaints are still in pending and yet to be decided. Interestingly, only 10 to 12 complaints have been judged to be mollified. Complaints have been received from universities, hospitals as well as offices.
Shahrukh Abbasey, spokesman, FOS, tells Money Matters that any kind of intimidating environment created by seniors/colleagues that affects one’s work performance is considered as harassment and is covered under the Protection Against Harassment of Women at The Workplace Act 2010.
He says there was a need of this law because complaints were being registered earlier under Section 509 of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) but the procedure of courts was too lengthy. The Section 509 PPC, he says, makes the uttering of any word, making of any sound or gestures, exhibiting of any object intending that such words or sound will be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by a woman, with the intention to insult the modesty of such woman, or intruding upon the privacy of such woman, an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one (1) year, or with fine, or with both.
Shahrukh says the number of complaints filed so far is much less than the number of incidents involving harassment and there are reasons to it. One is the lack of awareness of this law and another is that this office does not have any regional offices. So, it is difficult for the complainants to travel by road or fly to Islamabad to file and follow-up with the case. But with the provision to file complaints online and hear them online, the number will definitely increase.
Till now the informal sector is not covered by this law but in reform act 2014, which is in the standing committee right now, it has been proposed that informal sector including brick kilns and domestic workers should also be included in it. Suo motu powers have also been requested for FOS as well as a change of name as this law covers male complainants also and harassment does not only mean sexual harassment. The proposed new can be like law on Protection Against Harassment at Workplace.
Provincial Ombudsman and the Federal Ombudsman are both autonomous bodies and their jurisdictions extend to whole of Punjab and Pakistan respectively. So cases from all over Pakistan can be registered with Federal Ombudsman whereas Punjab Ombudsman can take cases of the provincial departments only.
Shahrukh says harassment cannot be eliminated completely and abruptly but the numbers can be stopped from increasing if proper awareness is given and aggrieved person gets justice in time which FOS is trying to ensure. “It is imperative that the complainant gets justice in time, and is not waiting for years or even months.” He proudly shares that FOS is the first department in Pakistan which has started skype service for complaint handling and at the moment two cases are being heard on Skype. One of these cases is from Los Angeles and the other one is from Karachi.
Fasih-ul-Kareem Siddiqui, Secretary General, Employers Federation of Pakistan (EFP) lauds the role of ILO and FOS in creating awareness among masses about the need for having harassment-free and stress-free work environment to increase labour efficiency and participation in the country’s workforce. He says the employers are convinced that harassment-free environment is equally beneficial for both the enterprises and their workforce.
He also hails the said law and hopes it will go a long way in eliminating gender bias at workplaces. Moreover, he says, this will give a strong message to the international community that Pakistan is not a conservative country anymore. The proper implementation of this law and adherence to the code of conducive devised under it will give birth to a friendly environment for women who will feel safe while stepping out of their houses for work, he hopes.
He supports the code of conduct advises by FOS and says public and private sector organisations must take a proactive approach and create environments where harassment become a thing of the past. Fasih says some people may try to blackmail employers which will be difficult as the anti-harassment law has inbuilt mechanisms to gauge the veracity of claims and penalties defined for those levelling false allegations
There are minor as well as major penalties prescribed for violators under the law. The minor penalties include (a) censure; (b) withholding, for a specific period, promotion or increment; (c) stoppage, for a specific period, at an efficiency bar in the time-scale, otherwise than for unfitness to cross such bar; and (d) recovery of the compensation payable to the complainant from pay or any other source of the accused. Major penalties are like: (a) reduction to a lower post or time-scale, or to a lower stage in a time-scale; (b) compulsory retirement; (c) removal from service; (d) dismissal from service; and (e) Fine. A part of the fine can be used as compensation for the complainant. In case of the owner, the fine shall be payable to the complainant.
The writer is a staff member