THE first step has been taken “towards changing the lives of women at the workplace”, to quote Sherry Rehman, the PPP MNA, former minister for women’s development and architect of the newly enacted law under discussion. This is in the form of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill that was passed by the National Assembly on Wednesday after having been in the works for months.
Meticulously drafted, the document enhances the punishment already prescribed under the law for sexual harassment and facilitates effective prosecution by defining ‘harassment’ unequivocally. These amendments to the PPC and CCP are designed to address the age-old issue women have faced in patriarchal societies – intimidation in public places – that inhibits them from stepping out of their homes. The political will displayed by the present government to improve the status of women is encouraging. Towards the same end, a bill on domestic violence was adopted by the assembly three months ago. Harassment can be tricky to prove legally, especially in an environment that is not too friendly towards women and where men have not been sensitised to issues concerning the dignity of women. Small wonder the existing provisions of the PPC could never be invoked because they were toothless. The effectiveness of the new laws will only be tested when a case is brought before a court of law.
While we welcome the new legislation – to be followed by another bill focusing on sexual harassment in the workplace – we should also point out that there “is a long way yet to go”, as Ms Rehman cautioned. As the moving spirit behind this law, she understands well the long struggle women in Pakistan have had to wage to win empowerment. The main obstacle they have faced is the entrenched social prejudice that relegates women to a subordinate status in public and family life. In the absence of general awareness of women’s rights and the ingrained perception of male superiority, legislation enacted to protect women has not found practical implementation. Very often women themselves are so conditioned that they fail to put up the fight needed to win their rights.
Under the new law, the onus of taking action will rest on women. Will they take the initiative, especially when fears are already being expressed by some men that the law will be misused to ‘settle old scores’? Hence the need of the hour is to educate and conscientise women about their rights so that real and meaningful change is brought to their lives. This calls for a holistic approach with a campaign on several fronts to change existing mindsets.