Social activist, gender expert Dr Fouzia Saeed talks to The News on Sunday about the 10 years of The Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, the challenges in its implementation, the successes and the amendments to the law.
Social activist, gender expert and author, Dr Fouzia Saeed talks to The News on Sunday over Zoom, about the 10 years of The Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, the challenges in its implementation, the successes and the amendments to the law.
The News on Sunday (TNS): It’s been ten years since the historic sexual harassment law was passed. What has the implementation progress been like in these 10 years?
Fouzia Saeed (FS): This was the first law in Pakistan for which the implementation process began even before the law got passed – around 350 organisations had already embraced it and had started working towards its implementation. We had formulated an implementation framework after consulting major stakeholders. There was a whole process behind it [the implementation], which began as soon as the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) came into being. By January 2011, the rules of this law had been passed officially. The HEC released its policy in January to be implemented in all educational institutions throughout the country. Then the State Bank got on board and went a step ahead by including the implementation of this law in its audit. A watch committee consisting of 20 people was formed at the national level. So the implementation process started with a bang. But we had already decided that we were not going to publicise how the law was being implemented on a case by case basis. Our focus was to institutionalise the procedure implementation of the law by bringing about basic systemic changes in an organisation. We worked at a couple of levels. We opened up helplines for women in all the provinces in the first year after the law was passed. We held talks with the management of major organisations regarding the implementation of the law and we remained quite successful in that regard. The organisations are aware that creating a dignified work environment for talented, brilliant women will eventually work in their favour. You don’t get to hear a lot about the implementation of these laws because we don’t propagate on a case by case basis.
Nobody wants a circus where sensitive things like harassment are involved.
TNS: Which sector do you think has been more forthcoming regarding the implementation of the law?
FS: The private sector has been very supportive of the law as it probably understands how imperative the implementation of this law is, in this day and age. All the companies under the Pakistan Business Forum have been supportive of this law. Banks and multinationals have been very forthcoming. Health and media are the two sectors that have been slow to adapt to this law. Some were supportive, for example Geo was one of the organisations that had already begun working towards the implementation of this law before it was passed. Then Dawn also followed through. But overall the media sector was slow to adapt.
TNS: This law has been amended quite a few times. Do you think that all these amendments were really needed?
FS: It is important for me to give a detailed answer to this. First of all it was the first comprehensive, full-fledged law to be passed after the Muslim Family Ordinance, 1961. Five other women-related laws were also passed in the next two and a half years including the Property Law and the Anti-Women Practices law. We seldom get to hear about amendments being made to any of those laws and there is a reason behind it. None of these laws were implemented properly and got as much media attention as the sexual harassment law did. The law became popular and when that happens many people want to be a part of it. The sexual harassment law is a national law. If a province wants to adopt a national law, they can. But with this law every province made minor amendments before adopting it, to put a feather in their cap.
“Harassment is one of the strategic things that can affect women everywhere. Mobility is another. I think that if women’s mobility is improved, it will make a huge impact on all other things in an institution.”
Most of the amendments revolved around the selection criteria for an ombudsperson. The initial criterion was that the ombudsperson should be one who “has been or is qualified to be a judge of a High Court”. This was subsequently amended by provinces according to their needs. Sindh is probably the only province which has not made any amendment to this law as yet. Usually the best way to make a new law is to just amend one. Another popular amendment to this law was the inclusion of home-based and piece-rate workers in it. Our stance on this amendment was that these women were already covered in the Section 509 of the Penal Code and they did not have to be included in this one as well.
There should be less focus on amending an already existing law and more on introducing new laws.
TNS: According to a survey conducted by a newspaper in 2018, only 17 percent of the women who experienced harassment at the workplace approached their organisation’s internal inquiry committees. Shouldn’t the presence of a law encourage women to speak up against sexual harassment?
FS: I think most of these surveys are largely uninformed and hence irresponsible. One fact that should be clearly understood is that even if a woman has launched a formal complaint against someone in her organisation, she will more often than not, not declare this fact openly. Secondly, if a survey is approached with the presumption that in Pakistan, laws are passed but hardly implemented, the result will automatically be biased. Another report that recently came out says that only 11 cases have been documented under this law so far. This is an alarming declaration to make. I can vouch for the fact that around 1,000 cases were reported in the first year alone. This system is vastly different from the Section 509 of the Penal Code. Under this law, cases are settled outside of court and police stations. Our stance is that in our country we have at least five platforms to launch a formal complaint against sexual harassment. Women must speak up against harassment because it gives other women the strength to come forward too, but they must also remember to follow the procedure that is in place to facilitate them.
TNS: According to the 2020 gender parity index prepared by the WEF, Pakistan ranks at 151 out of 153 countries. What effective measures do you think can be taken in order to work towards closing the gender gap and is anything being done?
FS: I think issues like gender gap can be taken care of automatically by focusing on core problems in this country. Harassment is one of the strategic things that can affect women everywhere. Mobility is another. I think that if women’s mobility is improved, it will make a huge impact on all other things in an institution. Installation of public toilets is also extremely important for women to be able to reclaim public spaces. We are way behind other countries regarding the gender gap and we need to take baby steps for the betterment of the overall situation. We need to work on breaking stigma for women, giving them their public spaces back, strengthening their creative expression etc and we can do wonders eventually.
The writer is a staff member