Pakistan entered a new era on Tuesday when the president signed the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill 2010 that is designed to provide a safe working environment for women.
Considering that one factor that deters female mobility outside the home is sexual harassment and that no other country in South Asia has a law like this, it is indeed a landmark event. But can we be certain that this law will actually change the situation on the ground? Although the title of the bill is not explicit on this score, the definition of ‘harassment’ is quite comprehensive in the text. It encompasses any “unwelcome sexual advance or request for sexual favours” or “sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance”. The act is also significant for the mechanism it requires every employer and the government to set up, where women can take their complaints. A comprehensive code of conduct has also been spelt out to guide employers in drawing up their own rules and publicising them.
The problem with many good laws in Pakistan is that they fail to get implemented. If they are then they are not put to optimum use by those for whose benefit they are introduced. Thus every organisation – whether in the public or private sector – is required to set up an inquiry committee to receive complaints and award penalties, and draw up a code of conduct for its employees.
The government has to appoint ombudsmen in every province to provide an avenue for appeal to anyone who feels he has been wrongly charged. It must be ensured that this machinery is created for an even-handed approached. There is also the need to create awareness among women about their rights under this law and how they can seek redress in an effective way if they are harassed. One hopes that all the stakeholders will proceed to do what they need to so that the law does not remain a dead letter. No doubt, they will encounter problems along the way, but the end result will be a more confident female working force.