Tuesday July 05, 2022

Victim blaming cause low reporting of harassment issues: FOSPAH chief

March 08, 2022

Islamabad:Complaining about victim blaming, federal ombudsperson for harassment Kashmala Khan has insisted that most Pakistani women don’t report unwelcome sexual behaviour of men around them fearing the society in general and their families in particular will hold the way they dress up or conduct themselves publicly responsible for such incidents.

“Instead of siding with the survivors of sexual harassment and violence, our society, on the whole, indirectly support the culprits by blaming and shaming their targets for our apparel and demeanour, so far fewer incidents are reported than what actually occurs. In these pitiful circumstances, we FOSPAH (Federal Ombudsperson Secretariat for Protection against Harassment) are doing our bit to fix things up. We are successfully encouraging and facilitating the victims of harassment to step forward and speak out about their misery and those responsible for it,” the ombudsperson told ‘The News’ on the eve of the International Women's Day (March 8).

Ms Kashmala said under the law, unwelcome sexual behaviour at the workplace, including intimidating and demeaning expressions, gestures and looks, was harassment and punishable by fine, demotion, compulsory retirement or even sacking.

She disclosed that workplace harassment was largely reported by government employees as the women working in private organisations kept such incidents mostly involving their bosses to themselves due to job insecurity.

“Unlike government departments, privately-owned establishments fire employees with a stroke of the pen and that, too, without disclosing or distorting the actual reason, so only a small proportion of harassment cases are reported in the private sector. This has emerged as a big problem, which necessitates encouraging the women harassed in the private sector to speak up. And that’s what we are doing,” she said.

The ombudsperson also said most women didn’t even know what they could easily do under the law to ensure that their harassers don’t get away with their offence scot-free.

She said all workplaces were bound by the law to have harassment committees with trained members and those without such panels were fined.

Ms Kashmala wondered why private organisations waited for the worst to happen to form that committee.

“No matter what the scale of the complaint is, big or small, it is their [committee’s] responsibility to address it in line with the law,” she said.

The ombudsperson said though the anti-harassment laws covered men, women and transsexuals, almost 99 per cent of the complaints about people’s unwelcome sexual behaviours were reported in the country by female persons.

She said better public awareness with the help of media, especially after the #MeToo movement became a rallying cry against sexual harassment around the world in recent years, led more and more women employees into reporting sexual advances of male colleagues or their unwelcome requests for sexual favours, and thus, ensuring speedy action by the ombudsperson’s secretariat.

Ms Kashmala said the federal government recently legislated to protect the property rights of women, so the women, who were denied those rights by the family, could contact her organisation by phone or email for a decision in just two months. She said Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Islamabad had replicated the law but unfortunately, Sindh and Balochistan had yet to follow in their footsteps.

Strongly advocating feminism, the ombudsperson insisted that the holding of a series of Aurat Azadi March on International Women’s Day furthered the cause of women’s rights in the country.

She, however, said some of the slogans shouted during those events provoked anger from conservative groups, so they should be avoided for the greater cause of women’s rights.

Ms Kashmala claimed that she had substantially increased her organisation’s efficiency in the last four years without asking the government for more funds or employing more people and thus, setting a precedent for other government organisations.

“I believe in working smart and that is what I did here to make a difference,” she said. The ombudsperson said her initiatives would provide her successors with a strong foundation to build on.

“With everything from offices to rules to the future course of action to the growing public confidence in place now, whosoever succeeds me will have to only work for better public awareness to stamp out harassment,” she said.

Ms Kashmala acknowledged coming under political pressure for favours, but insisted that she never yielded and always decided things ‘purely on merit’.

In her Women’s Day message, the ombudsperson urged women to first know their rights and stand up to claim them and second work hard for their own as well as the community's development without being jealous of others' success.

She declared women’s emancipation imperative for turning the country around but said if women demanded equality, then they shouldn’t ask for the status of the fairer sex for themselves and instead, they should tangibly contribute to national development as the men did.

“We (women) have to prove by our actions that we’re not less capable or efficient than men and rather do better than them in all fields for having the ability to multitask,” she said.