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Workplace harassments in Pakistan: initiatives taken by State and the way forward

The author highlights the issue of workplace harassment in Pakistan. Despite measures taken by the government, women continue to face difficulties in the country. According to the writer, legislations alone cannot shift a thought paradigm, the efforts for change need to be holistic and inclusive.

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Year after year, the “Aurat March” brings the country to crossroads, as the outcry for gender equality is misrepresented and often misunderstood. Branded as the “west birthed propaganda”, attempts are made to divert the attention from its true roots of historical trauma, widespread gender inequalities and pervasive violence against women where crimes against them are usually under-reported and their outcries for help ignored.

Despite the country being on an accelerated development drive, supported by digitization which has catered to growing personal liberties, the march towards gender equality and diversity, however, remains grievously slow.

Read more: Gender gap: Pakistan ranks second worst in the world

As the representation of women in all walks of life grows and they pursue entrepreneurial and employment opportunities in Pakistan, the need to shift the focus from the propagandist tunes of “clash of cultures” to advocating the creation of environments free of gender-based violence becomes imperative.

Choices that we make today will have a cascading effect on our socio-economic fabric for years to come.

Read more: Dissent on Aurat March and Woman Empowerment

What causes sexual harassment at work?

In a society punctuated by gender segregation, patriarchy and intolerance, the birthing of aggressive male-dominated work cultures is a common occurrence where sexual harassment at work is amongst the most frequent and under-reported gender-based violence, whose flames are further fed by the entrenched values of female objectification.

Each and every vehicle of culture promotes and enforces the portrayal of women as either mere objects of male’s desires destined to suffer in silence or helpless spectators in the drama of their own lives, a behaviour pattern that is later replicated and transmitted at workplaces.

Read more: Pakistani culture vs Women empowerment: Should Aurat March be held?

The menace of sexual harassment at work is further aggravated by continued campaigning of archaic values that promote the perception of men as providers and breadwinners. They perceive the strive for economic quality and freedom as a direct threat to their traditionally superior role in society, which in turn affects the position of women in labour markets as they are assigned lesser valued roles and discriminated against to discourage their participation.

While verbal sexual harassment at the workplace comprising of unwanted, unwelcome and objectionable comments on a female’s appearance, colour, religion, age, marital status and negative stereotyping is a staple custom, non-verbal harassment in the shape of sexually demeaning behaviours, written or graphic jokes ridiculing, belittling, disrespecting and sexualizing females is also rampant, and many a time unchecked.

Read more: Mind The Gap: Conference on Gender Dimensions that keep women down

The grim reality of women

As long as the climate of gender-based discrimination and repression prevails, for many women exploitive, despotic, damaging, toxic, uncomfortable work conditions are a grim reality and their escape limited.

The chains of social conditioning, taboos and stigmas associated with family’s honour, fear of the loss of their limited liberties, economic responsibilities, threats of rebuttal, and worries of retaliation bind them as they continue to suffer in silence.

Relief measures and steps were taken by the state to ensure their welfare and freedom to work in conditions of dignity, equality and security inaccessible as they battle the unfavourable societal conditions created for them.

The traditional norms designed to portray women as the torch bearers of perceived morality, cultural values and custodians of their own modesty also shackle the victim, as the distress of potential victim-blaming and character questioning in events of abuse stifles their voice.

Read more: ‘Media to blame for sexualization of women’: Senior journalist hits back at internet trolls

Measures taken by the State to protect women

From a legal perspective, the state provides blanket protection to the women of Pakistan in all aspects of civic life. Violence in form of labels, disrespect or offensive gestures is covered under the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 section 509 wherein the perpetrator is liable to the punishment of three years or fine or both. Section 509 extends this protection to women in all circles of public and private life, safeguarding their dignity.

Protection against any form of sexual violence to underage girls is delivered in section 366A of the Penal Code as the offender is made liable to a fine as well as a punishment of 10 years.  Any harm to the modesty of the women via physical aggression in any shape of assault or use of criminal force is punishable by two years’ imprisonment or fine or both under section 354-A of Pakistan’s Penal Code.

Read more: Op-ed: A renewed global commitment towards protection of women

354-B covers the aspects of molestation with sexual motive where any shape of sexual act, pornography, exhibitionism or inducing or intimidating is punishable with imprisonment up to 7 years or with fine or with both.

In 2010, landmark legislation, “The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010”, explicitly addressed sexual harassment in offices, offering a window of justice and relief to the victims by enabling them to voice their grievances either directly in the Ombudsman Secretariat or at an internal inquiry committee at their workplace.

Street harassment in the shape of unwanted, indecent and vulgar comments of sexualized orientation, provocative language, hooting, wolf-whistlings, and catcalling is punishable by an imprisonment of 3 years along with a fine in Section 294 of Pakistan Penal Code 1860.

Read more: Pakistan’s Female Police Officer Solves 200 Sexual Abuse Cases

Are the legislations enough or more needs to be done?

Yet for many women, striving for economic liberty, secure and safe places, gender neutrality and empowerment is an ongoing battle that threatens their dignity, safety and happiness as the abuse transpires in the name of culture and traditions.

Legislations alone cannot shift a thought paradigm, the efforts for change need to be holistic and inclusive. The fight for gender equality and gender progress in all walks of life is not against specific elements in the society, it is a tussle for sweeping the society clean of misogynistic intractable values and practices, to usher in gender norms that preserve and uphold the dignity, health, happiness and the basic human right of welfare.

Read more: Op-ed:Will the new anti-rape ordinance meet the same fate as previous laws

The stand is for nurturing a culture that exhibits zero-tolerance against any shape or form of gender-based harassment.

Times call for gender sensitization with respect to the sensitivities and boundaries of man-woman relationships to occupy the centre stage in our efforts to create safe, secure and healthy environments for women.

Outlining codes of conduct, particularly during the early years on the aspects of interaction with the opposite gender and sensitizing our youth in schools and at home on the appropriate limits can have a butterfly effect on our gender progress and gender norms. For a better, secure and safer tomorrow for our women, the change should begin with the agents of the future. The policymakers and advocacy groups should focus on the less visible but ironclad barriers to gender-equal and gender-neutral society.

No form of violence against women including sexual harassment can be combated until patriarchal, misogynic mindsets are changed. No real change can emerge unless and until we change the perceptions. No gender is inferior and every gender has the freedom to choose and to seek equality.

Read more: Teaching gender equality at school

The author is a Political Economist, currently working with the Punjab Board of Investment and Trade with core interests in Politics, Media and Human rights Issues. Her work has been published in various blogs and news outlets. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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