By Huma Yusuf
THE most notable thing about my first job in Pakistan – as a production assistant at a private television channel – was that there were no bathroom facilities for female employees.
A few uncomfortable days into the job, I discovered that a family friend had an office in a nearby building, and so, each time nature called, I would take the long trek – down three flights of stairs, across the street, pass a block, up four flights of stairs – to use the facilities there.
Initially, I invited my female colleagues to join me on these expeditions, but they always declined and I assumed they had similar arrangements of their own. But as I got to know the women, I learnt that they were mortified at the prospect of walking into a complete stranger’s office and use the facilities there. Rather than endure the humiliation, one woman refused to consume liquids during her 10-hour workday, another would hold it from morning until her 5 pm tea break at a corner cafe, yet another developed a urinary tract infection, and a fourth simply quit.
I was reminded of this absurd state of affairs when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani explained that his government was backing the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill – which defines and increases the punishment for sexual harassment – in an effort to make workplaces safer for female employees, consequently reducing national poverty. The sad truth is, sexual harassment is not the only problem that keeps women out of the labour force.
This is not to say that the bill is unwelcome. Women across the country should be grateful that sexual harassment has finally been recognised as a crime by the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC). For years, highly offensive and intimidating behaviour – yelling out obscenities, pinching, fondling, demanding sexual favours, threatening sexual assault – has been glossed over by that deceptively charming euphemism, ‘eve teasing’. The PPC, too, toyed with verbiage, and section 509 (which has now been amended) merely deemed “insults” to a woman’s “modesty” as criminal. The failure to clearly identify – and stigmatise – sexual harassment has perpetuated the problem.
In December 2007, a survey by the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (a conglomeration of women- and worker-rights NGOs) revealed that 78.38 percent of working women had been sexually harassed on the job. The figure soared to 91 percent in the case of domestic workers. Leave aside the fact that probably every Pakistani woman has been harassed at least once in public.
Commendably, the amended section 509 explicitly refers to sexual harassment and offers a comprehensive description of the same. The amendment also points out that sexual harassment occurs both in public places such as markets and parks as well as in workplaces and private homes. In a particularly useful move, the bill extends the understanding of ‘workplace’ beyond geographical limits and acknowledges that sexual advances “may occur after working hours and outside [the] workplace”. The amendment further stipulates that any advances made owing to access “a perpetrator has to the person being harassed by virtue of a job situation” count as sexual harassment.
While sexual harassment will be punishable by law (assuming the Senate approves the bill), implementing the amended section is another matter. Speaking at a recent Aurat Foundation meeting, retired justice Shaiq Usmani pointed out that the amended section 509 still states that “intending to insult” a woman is criminal; proving intent in a court of law is much trickier than simply identifying inappropriate conduct.
A woman also needs to obtain a warrant for the arrest of a sexual offender. Few professional women have the means and knowhow to register a complaint and obtain an arrest warrant. Moreover, the warrant requirement means that the most common form of sexual harassment – staring, heckling, pinching, etc. – that occurs in public by strangers will remain unpunished. To make the law truly effective, the amendment should have stipulated that any law-enforcer who witnesses an act of sexual harassment and does not act against the perpetrator could also be fined.
But no law is without loopholes. The significance of this amendment is that it sets the stage for a societal shift on thinking about sexual harassment. By naming the problem, the government has opened the door for the public and private sectors to launch awareness campaigns that list forms of sexual harassment and point out that these are liable to prosecution. Nothing can change until women understand that the advances they silently endure are inappropriate and illegal.
Using the new legal definition of harassment, female employees can demand that government offices and private companies develop strict codes of professional conduct and introduce mechanisms for reporting and investigating transgressions. Internal forums will help discourage and punish sexual harassment and certainly attract more women to the workplace.
Which brings me to my original point. Although there is no doubt that the amendment bill will eventually encourage safer, female-friendly working environments, it would be a mistake to think, like Prime Minister Gilani seems to, that sexual harassment is the only workplace obstacle that women face. The fact is, Pakistani women are fighting battles on many fronts. Sexual harassment is a problem that plagues all women, irrespective of their employment status. Reframing legislation against sexual harassment as an initiative to boost female participation in the labour force is a shortcut the government must not take.
Separate initiatives to increase female labour are urgently required as well. As a start, workplaces should be required to provide bathroom facilities for both men and women. Larger companies should have in-house daycare centres. Paid maternity leave should be mandated and regularised. And part-time or flexible hours options for women with children must be encouraged. Without basic female-friendly infrastructure and policies, criminalising sexual harassment will only be a half-measure towards promoting female employment.