The Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010, which makes sexual harassment a criminal offence, has made it possible for the wall of silence surrounding the issue to be dismantled. In one such case filed by a woman officer against the provincial director of the National Maternal, Neonatal and Child Health Programme as well as his monitoring and evaluation officer, the Sindh Ombudsman for the Protection against Harassment of Women in the Workplace has found the two men guilty of “causing sexual harassment, mental agony and creating hostile environment.” A fine of Rs 100,000 has been imposed on the former and the promotion of the latter withheld for three years. This is the second such decision in a month’s time. Earlier, the security head of the National Institute of Cardiovascular Disease and his two subordinates faced dismissal orders for harassing their woman colleagues. Previously in Punjab, the offence was similarly dealt with by the provincial ombudsperson.
Sexual harassment whether physical, verbal or written is an experience common to most working women, so is the difficulty for the victims to speak out. For, even though the phenomenon is widespread all over the world, it is a more serious problem in this country because of the prevailing culture in which women are viewed as male property whose place is within the four walls of a home. Those who venture out, especially from less privileged backgrounds or those lacking self-confidence, are more likely to fall victim to unwelcome sexual advances. If that is not bad enough, complainants of harassment are often confronted with the question if they work out of a financial necessity, thereby implying that it is not for women to want to have professional careers either for economic reasons or to have productive expression. Filing a complaint also carries the risk of reputational harm as usually it is the victim rather than the predator who gets blamed for the ‘incidents’. Small wonder that most victims suffer in silence or call it quits.
Provision of a legal forum to women to lodge workplace sexual harassment is important, as the present instances show. It also needs to be publicized better so all working women know where to go in the event of a problem. Towards that end, provincial governments ought to ensure all public and private concerns display the law and the availably of the legal redressal at a prominent place within their respective premises. It would also be useful to have an in-house remedial arrangement whereby an apology, change of working arrangement, and in the case of an extreme offence, demotion or transfer to another location could address a victim’s grievances. That though can happen only when cultural attitude change. The media can, and should, play a lead role in that by making their news and views content sensitive to gender equality.