Legal mechanisms still fall short to tackle sexual harassment.

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Many employers have yet to set up committees to investigate harassment complaints, says expert Farehia Rehman. “One day I reached university around 1pm. My class wouldn’t start before 2pm so I decided to wait at the gate,” says a university student who wishes to remain unnamed.

She continues, “While I was waiting at the entrance, a guard started talking to me. Soon, I realised that he was speaking without reason, just to make conversation. I tried avoiding him, but he kept on talking and then extended an unsolicited request for friendship. He said he would mark my attendance whenever I could not come on time or could not come at all,” she recalls.

Such forced interactions, and unsolicited advances, are common experiences for female students at colleges and universities. Many keep these tormenting experiences to themselves out of fear of victim blaming in case they make their complaints public.

In 2010, the government not only enacted a special law for preventing sexual harassment at workplaces but also amended Section 509 of Pakistan Penal Code. For the first time, sexual harassment was defined through a legislative instrument. Before this enactment, there was no clear definition of harassment, whether at public or private workplaces.

Since then, we have had a strong legislation and special committees at federal and provincial levels to deal with such crimes, but still women, especially universities students, home-based workers, and domestic helpers remain helpless.

“Law making is a very important aspect towards the betterment of women, but we have a long way to go where effective implementation of these laws is concerned,” says Syeda Vaqarun Nisa Hashmi, the president of Viquar Society of Socio-Economic Development and Legal Aid and Commissioners for Children and Right to Freedom of Information Wing Wafaqi Motasib (Ombudsman)’s Secretariat.

She says public and private institutions and women activists are working together for effective implementation of harassment law. And that is why, she adds, “women can easily lodge complains at the organisations where special committees have been formalised to deal with the issue”.

But unfortunately, she contends the number of such organisations is very limited. Furthermore, “women who are associated with such organisations can only lodge complaints there. the law is not applicable to all women.”

However, women can lodge complaints at any police station under Section 509 of the PPC (it prescribes an imprisonment of up to 3 years or a fine of up to Rs500,000 or both, for insulting the modesty of a woman). Yet, such offences are on the rise, as because most women are still unaware of their rights under the amended section of the PPC.

In this backdrop, when interviewed, even many educated women were of the view that they don’t want to visit police stations for reporting any incidence and seeking remedy because of the police’s behaviour and the discouraging attitude of families and friends.

They stressed for major behavioural change to make the police system effective so that the complainants would not hesitate to report their incidents to the police.

On February 28, 2017, MNA Asiya Nasir moved a bill seeking an amendment to the Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010, to expand the scope of the law to cover educational institutions and domestic work as well.

At that time the committee members expressed serious concerns over multiplying number of harassment cases at universities across the country. However, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Human Rights rejected the proposal for inclusion of educational institutes in the Harassment of Women at Workplace Act. The Ministry of Law and Justice, citing Article 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code, agreed with the parliamentary panel that educational institutes did not fall under the women’s harassment act ambit.

Official sources close to the development say that ‘women activists had strongly condemned the move.

When approached, Maliha Husain, the program director of Mehrgarh and the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA), an umbrella of various NGOs, says, “the law covers relationship of the employee and the employer, it does not apply to universities because students or domestic workers do not come under any of the two entities”.

She opines that the Article 509 of the PPC already covers any such harassment of women anywhere in the country and women can lodge their FIRs according to this law.

On a question about difficulties faced by complainants while reporting police cases, she stresses for police and judicial reforms to fix these issues.

“What makes this worse is society’s attitude towards women in distress. Their plight is still largely ignored and hidden under a shroud of ‘shame,” she adds.

She says the Protection of Women Against Harassment at Workplace Act makes it mandatory for the management of the organisations to adopt the Code of Conduct and form a three-member inquiry committee to deal with the complaints. She says that the victims can directly report cases to the federal or provincial ombudspersons if they feel that the departmental inquiry committee can’t do justice.

Though, she feels that the implementation of harassment law is slow, but the number of organisation who have adopted the law is increasing with every passing day.

According to the rules set out by the 2010 Act, she adds, enquiry committees are supposed to submit their report within 30 days, and their recommendations should be implemented within another week.

On a question she says she believes that 95 percent of reported harassment cases are genuine. Since the enforcement of this law, Mehrgarh has received as many as 3,700 complaints about harassment at workplace, she adds. Resource Credit.

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