Pakistan is among those countries where anything related to sex is considered as a taboo in public. The stigma attached to the subject also leads to silence behind sexual harassment and abuse. Women for years have been asked to remain silent on matters of sexual harassment until the promulgation of the sexual harassment law. The Act for Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace is a result of a long-fought battle in the country. Had it not been for Dr. Fouzia Saeed, and her efforts to challenge the legislation for sexual harassment, President Asif Zardari would not have put into effect the law on Sexual Harassment in 2010.
Fouzia Saeed was the first woman in Pakistan to go public about being sexually harassed at her workplace. She along with 11 other women at UN Gender Program file a report against the man harassing them. This marked the beginning of her struggle to push for the formulation of a sexual harassment law for workplaces. Although years have passed since the implementation of the law, a large portion of the women population in the country is unaware of the existence of such a law. One of the major reasons behind this is the silence on sexual harassment cases.
Women are victim of sexual harassment almost on a daily basis, but the problem in most of the cases of sexual harassment goes unreported in Pakistan for various reasons. Sexual harassment in all sorts of workplace environments and position is prevalent. Women working as doctors, teachers, lawyers, and in parliament daily receive sexist remarks and condescending behavior from men and women. Sexual harassment in workplace range from acts like inappropriate starring, unrequited physical contact, comments on a person’s body, catcalling, groping, mockery, stopping promotion for denying sexual favors by someone in a higher position etc.
According to research conducted by Dawn, 58% of the women in workplaces said, their workplaces do not take the cases of sexual harassment seriously. Similar is the percentage for women speaking up for inappropriate behavior and abuse and reporting cases of sexual harassment in workplaces. More than half of the respondents said they would leave their jobs if harassed. The prime reason behind the nonseriousness on part of workplace organizations is that the management team prioritizes the reputation of the organization over the safety of women in the workplace.
The average age of marriage for women in Pakistan has increased from 16 years old in 1961 to 22 years old in 2007. The fertility rate has to boot halved and the teen fertility rate has decreased to eight percent in recent years. This has laid the foundation for more and more women to join the workforce. With female literacy rate slightly rising and girls are getting enrolled in universities. Hence, chances are the presence of women in workplaces will double in the coming years. Although, the strength of women in workplaces has not made any significant change in the attitudes of people towards sexual harassment cases. The power dynamics in workplaces have played a huge role in creating a sexual harassment tolerant environment. Research shows that power disparity in workplaces perpetuates sexual harassment. People in higher positions have a tendency to sexually harass their subordinates. The power hierarchies have made it difficult for women to file sexual harassment cases.
The irony of the situation in Pakistan is that women who speak up against sexual harassment are more shamed than the harasser is. By filing a complaint, women risk jobs, family criticism, expulsion, and taunts. Usually, when women do file complaints, their testimonies are discredited by questioning the character of the complainant.
Pakistan was the first country in South Asia to make specific laws for sexual harassment. The law requires all organizations, public, private, and civil sector to establish an internal committee to tackle problems related to sexual harassment. The law holds the employer responsible to make a conducive environment for women in workplaces. Aside from the internal committee, the law mandates it for the provinces to establish an Office of Ombudsperson to address sexual harassment cases. If a complainant is dissatisfied with the decision of the internal committee, he/she can take the case to the Ombudsperson. The manager or the employer, in this case, should abide by the decision of the Ombudsperson. After nine years of the implementation of the law, the government of Balochistan has finally appointed a provincial ombudsperson. Advocate Sabira Islam is the first Provincial Ombudsperson for Balochistan who will handle cases and appeals of sexual harassment. She will also ensure and monitor the effective implementation of the law in the province.