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A closer look at sexual harassment laws

By Fouzia Saeed

The writer recently completed her three year term as a member of the National Commission on the Status of Women and as the chairperson of the anti sexual harassment watches committee

Implementation has been one of the weakest links when it comes to our country’s law enforcement. This limitation in our legal structure was seen as a challenge by the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) when it came to the sexual harassment laws signed by the president in March 2010. The prime minister authorised the NCSW to establish an Implementation Watch Committee, under his authority, to ensure that all organisations — government, private sector and NGOs — adhered to both the letter and spirit of the new law.

The Implementation Watch Committee’s final report was released recently to all stakeholders, including parliamentarians. The report states that over a 1,000 sexual harassment cases have been addressed by the inquiry committees formed by organisations across the country. These include universities, government agencies and private sector institutions such as hotels, media groups, factories, large businesses and banks. Over 50 cases were lodged directly with the police under section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), including cases of sexual harassment in public, in offices and in homes, the latter mostly involving harassment by fathers-in-law. Over 50 cases were filed with the federal ombudsperson, either directly or on appeal after an unsatisfactory decision by a local inquiry committee.

In our country, it can often take two to five years to get the rules of a law drafted and passed. In the case of the sexual harassment law, the rules were passed and notified within eight months. Within a year, most federal government departments and several provincial departments had set up their inquiry committees and oriented their staff to the issue of sexual harassment. In the second year, almost all regulatory bodies, like the Auditor General, the State Bank of Pakistan, the Pemra and the NDMA, had sent out instructions to their member organisations to comply with the law.

Despite the rapid institutionalisation of the law, the very fact that women have made use of these rules has been viewed by the media as evidence that the laws are not working. To the contrary, this should be seen as a success indicator. The Implementation Watch Committee report states that we should expect the number of complaints of sexual harassment to continue to increase at an alarming rate now that the law has legitimised women’s right to complain against unwanted behaviour. That is the success of the law.

Unfortunately, the media supported the struggle as long as it was highlighting a problem. After the laws were passed and the government, with the help of the private sector began to resolve the issue, we have only seen criticism from the media. The electronic media, in particular, continues to focus on what has not yet been resolved, generating disillusionment rather than educating people about the potential value of the new laws. The major cases that set the precedents in holding the culprits accountable hardly got any media attention, even when strong resolve was shown in the face of heavy pressure to quash complaints against powerful harassers.

Unfortunately, the implementation of section 509 of the PPC has not seen full implementation. A few senior officials have shown their support but, in general, the police, lawyers and the judiciary are yet to address the issue seriously.

Nevertheless, the implementation of these laws against sexual harassment represents part of a historic shift in many aspects of our society. These laws established a model for partnership in the design and implementation of public policy. Gone are the days when women saw protests with placards in the streets as the only outlet for their frustrations. Women are coming out in public in increasing numbers and will not quietly go back behind the walls of their homes. Our society has been presented with the opportunity to turn women into useful, productive citizens of equal value as men.

Unfortunately, some important members of our society continue to resist this evolution of Pakistan into a modern nation, but their attempts will prove as viable as trying to hold a lid on the top of a volcano.

The Express Tribune