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Woes of a working woman

Harassment at the workplace is a never ending issue for women, but women have the option to protest and seek justice against the perpetrators. You takes a look!

Go to the director, Sonia. He is very happy with the way you completed your project, and wants to praise your efforts personally,” said my immediate supervisor.

Thrilled to hear that my work had been noticed by the higher-ups, I hurried to the director’s office. I had seen him on just a couple of occasions previously and had been impressed by his kindly, grandfather-ish visage. The director’s secretary gave me a smile and told me to go right in. With butterflies fluttering in my stomach, I knocked and entered the office. My director praised me for doing great work, which made me feel very honoured. And proud. Very casually, the director murmured, “How about celebrating your success with me by having dinner tonight?”

It was like a punch in the stomach that drove the butterflies out. I wanted to tell him to go to hell, but I was just 22, and this was my first job. I felt somewhat intimidated. So I decided to be diplomatic and replied: “I am busy, sir. I have to attend a family wedding-”

“Tomorrow, then?” he persisted. Embarrassed and furious, I simply walked out of his office and went to my supervisor.

“Sir,” I said in a choked, broken voice, “please don’t send me to the director’s office again.”

My supervisor looked suitably concerned and asked what had transpired. When I told him briefly what had happened, he said, “You are too distraught right now. Come, let’s go out and relax over tea and coffee. You don’t have to worry about anything till I am on your side!”

“I strode out of the office, highly incensed, without replying to my supervisor. I took the next three days off in the hope that my boss would forget the incident. When I went to office, he immediately called me and said that I had not answered him! I told him that I was from a conservative family and though he was like my father, my family would not allow me to go out with him. He looked angry and did not answer me. I thought it was the end of the matter. How stupidly optimistic I was!”

“I started receiving vulgar text messages from an unidentified number. Initially, I hoped the guy would get bored and stop texting if I simply ignored the obnoxious messages, but unfortunately I started getting messages from more numbers.”

“After a little investigative work, I found out that the guy who had started the onslaught was my boss’s Personal Assistant! I complained to him, but he said I was mistaken. I showed him the messages, but he still chose not to believe it. I complained officially about the incident to the office authorities and a committee was constituted to investigate my claim. I had the messages saved and the guy could not deny it was not his number, but said that someone must have used it while he was not on his seat.”

“The committee accepted his explanation and closed the case. After that, I had to face the full blast of my male co-workers’ anger. They started calling me a call girl in loud whispers. My boss became very stern with me and started scolding me insolently in front of the entire office. Everyone laughed when he did that. This treatment was also meted out to five other girls in my department because they had also refused to cave in to the pressure of our male co-workers and bosses.”

“Finally, we all went to the court after actually recording all the obnoxious and derogatory things these people said to us. Thank God for technology! Those guys had no idea we were making movies and recording their abuse, and the judge ruled in our favour in no time. The authorities responded by giving us option to get transferred to different departments, or to even different cities. However, no one lost their jobs! There were appeals and stuff and since I work in a public organization, there is job security. The case is still pending in the court and I doubt anyone would be punished.”

Sonia shared her experience with a group of working women, attending a two-day seminar by Women Empowerment Group (WEG) on ways and means to tackle harassment at workplace. After she spoke out, many of the participants shared their harrowing stories. Many of them had taken harassment by their male colleagues without complaining to the concerned authorities, as they did not think it would help matters at all.

“By complaining, we will only make things tougher for ourselves. In matter like these, males stick together and end up maligning the character of the woman,” shared another participant. “It only gives one a reputation of being fast. Besides, if it’s the boss who is responsible, complaining against him would mean losing the job,” she added fatalistically.

It is the fear of speaking out against harassment that makes men secure in the knowledge that they can get away with anything. As pointed out by a representative of WEG, most female workers are not aware that the National Assembly unanimously passed a bill to punish harassment of women at workplaces on 22 January 2010. On 30 January, the then president, Asif Ali Zardari, signed the bill effectively making it into law. “It is very disappointing that many organizations do not display ‘Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Bill 2009? which is required by law. Most female workers are ignorant of the fact that the government of Pakistan amended section 509 of Pakistan Penal Code which pertained to protecting the modesty of women. Now it clearly defines harassment and includes harassment at workplace as well. According to the amendment, the maximum punishment for perpetrator has been raised from one to three years of imprisonment. Also, it makes insulting the modesty of women or sexually harassing them a crime,” said Omar Aftab, CEO of White Ribbon Campaign Pakistan.

“I think the best way is to complain to some person of authority within your organization,” shared another participant. “When a harassment case was reported in my organization, a three-member committee was constituted by the concerned authorities. When the charges were found to be true, that man was terminated with immediate effect. Our CEO told us that the company had zero tolerance for people who harass women. Besides, going to the police and make them investigate is another hassle!” she added.

The need of the hour is for women to wake up to their rights. They can file complaints against people harassing them at work, and are entitled to an investigating committee comprising three members, one of whom has to be a woman. Also, they can register an FIR with the police or report directly to Federal/Provincial Ombudsman, appointed under this act. According to law, no adverse action can be taken against the complainant or witnesses by the employers.

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