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Is Pakistan safe for working women?

Despite the existence of laws protecting them, women in Pakistan’s workplaces continue to experience harassment

By Shazia Mehboob Tanoli |
PUBLISHED September 25, 2022

Despites the existence of laws to protect women against sexual harassment and humiliation at their places of work, they continue to experience physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional victimisation. Whilst the laws are there to encourage and support women to challenge their treatment, many professional environments remain toxic, and perpetrators are not discouraged from subjecting women to an unending cycle of humiliation and victimization.

There is a large majority of working women in Pakistan who are victims of different forms of harassment but are forced to continue their jobs in hostile working environments. Those who are able to take a stand are confronted by numerous challenges in their fight for justice, a process that further normalises workplace harassment.

The workplace harassment case filed by a former senior officer of an electric company is one such example. The lady had filed a complaint of sexual harassment against the company’s CEO in the Sindh Ombudsman in November 2020. Instead of allowing the ombudsman to proceed with the case, the company’s lawyers got a stay order in the Sindh High Court (SHC). It took the victim one year to get a judgment in her favour for removal of the stay order. Since then, she has still been struggling to get justice.
In the sexual harassment case, the complainant alleges that the CEO invited her to dinner very late at night, insisting he would pick her up. He wanted to control her behaviour and made inappropriate comments, which were highly disturbing and unprofessional. When the lady did not behave the way he wanted, he got offended and created a very hostile environment for her. She was in a constant state of mental torture as he was using different tactics to punish her for her resistance. The victim filed a complaint within the organization. She informed the senior management, including the HR chief and members of the company’s board, but no one acted on the complaint nor was any inquiry launched against the CEO or those involved. Instead, the victim faced pressure to stop the complaint.

As the result of her harassment complaint, the victim was not only terminated from her job but all her dues, including salaries and pension funds, were withheld, and have not been paid by the company even now, almost two years later. The alleged perpetrator and others named in the complaint are still employed and face no investigation or action.

This case against a CEO highlights the lack of power of internal committees because of which junior staff cannot be expected to act against senior management that heads the entire organization and control their professional careers. The justice system is also unhelpful to victims as they have to pay for their own lawyers, often amounting to millions of rupees, while the alleged perpetrators have huge company funds to pay for expensive corporate lawyers who can keep cases going for years with numerous adjournments. These adjournments aim to exhaust the victim’s financial resources and emotional stamina. A victim is expected to attend hearings, but perpetrators are not required to be there; in the aforementioned case, out of over twenty hearings, the CEO has not attended a single one.

For any woman who chooses to go to court to get justice, it means sacrificing her professional career as companies are unwilling to hire women who have made complaints about their employers. Women complainants also face societal disrespect and criticism.
The Sindh Ombudsman was supposed to conclude the case within three months as per the written law standards in such cases, but the influential alleged perpetrator filed a case in the SHC. Although the SHC has passed a ruling in favour of the victim, the perpetrator is planning to move the case to the Supreme Court, which creates more delay. This is the usual story for victims who spend years in court facing delays and appeals whereas the perpetrators stay in their jobs, have no legal costs or any consequences for years.

The good news is that the law has been strengthened and updated in 2022 with the Amendment Act that establishes that conduct does not have to be overtly sexual to be harassment and expands the categories of worker protection. The next important step is ensuring the implementation of the amended act in true letter and spirit.

In this regard, Advocate High Court Raj Ali Wahid Kunwar explains that the ombudsman was working within the system. Challenges of delays are there, yet it is a good platform for women to raise their voices. The ombudsman has a lawyer to support complainants who need legal support through the ombudsman system; however, such state level support is not available in courts thus discouraging women to pursue their cases in court.

Advocate Kunwar adds that a woman complainant has to bear the cost of courts as well as other related pressures. Mostly, its young women who are unaware of the protection mechanism for victims of harassment; they are also told to be “cooperative” with seniors in a male dominated professional environment.

According to Kunwar, there is a gradual increase in the reported cases of harassment at the workplace, and that is because of women’s growing awareness about their rights. However, lack of training and awareness sessions on gender friendly environments is a major reason for workplace harassment. If women take a stand and file cases against perpetrators, the situation could be improved.

Sara Malkani, a high court advocate, is of the view that law is strong, justice system is supportive and encourages women to come forward and take a stand against their harassment at the workplace. Malkani says what needs to be improved is the mechanism. There is a need to sensitise the working environment. Women have their rights, and they want to stand up to perpetrators, but the time-consuming justice system sometimes discourages them from pursuing their cases. The ombudsman and their inquiry committees are quite empathetic to cases of harassment. They take these issues seriously, as is the case with courts too, but procedural loopholes are there for the perpetrators to exploit. This requires urgent attention.

Crucial role of top management

There are many incidents of harassment that are successfully addressed because of the top management playing a positive role. Journalist Ismat is of the view that women should take a stand against harassment, and until they don't, their persecution will continue. Recalling her own experience of harassment, Ismat relates that in earlier years when she was young, she suffered harassment from her programme producer. But instead of leaving her job, she talked to her family and they stood by her, advising her to take action against the harasser. She lodged a complaint with the top management. When the inquiry was conducted, the man was found guilty and fired from the job.

After being out of the job for three years, he not only apologised but accepted his guilt. Ismat says that women instead of compromising their peace of mind and respect should respond to harassment by taking a stand against the harassers.

Khadija Ali, State Council of the Islamabad High Court, argues that there is a need to establish a gender friendly work environment in organisations so that cases of harassment can be minimised. It is possible to achieve this through organisation-based gender sensitisation sessions. Senior management can play an important role in establishing a gender friendly work environment. However, she points out, there are only a handful of organisations where internal inquiry committees are operational. Responsibility for formation of such committees is that of the ombudsman, both at federal and provincial levels. By forming these committees in every private and public organisation, the issue of workplace harassment can be ably addressed.

The very existence of such committees will be a deterrent to harassers and an encouragement to women. But regretfully, the ombudsman has, so far, failed to implement the harassment laws in their true letter and spirit.

The State Council says that the provincial harassment laws need to be expanded. Presently, they are only confined to the issue of sexual harassment whereas harassment can be of various forms, for example, berating a woman’s presence and value to the organisation, demeaning her performance, or belittling her role. These types of issues are not addressed in provincial laws. However, the federal law has introduced amendments that cover both tangible and intangible forms of harassment at the workplace.

There is a need for both federal and provincial laws to be synchronised to lend consistency to challenging harassment, gender-based discrimination and victimisation.

However, according to Advocate Khadija, the law has improved on many aspects of harassment as more and more women are seen demonstrating resistance against the perpetrators. There is an increase in the number of harassment complaints to the ombudsman.

What still exists is a pressing need for measures to ensure the establishment of harassment committees in organisations, both in public and private sector. It is the responsibility of the ombudsman to ensure that such committees are instituted in every organisation.

Toxic misogyny prevails

The former senior lady officer at the aforementioned company is not the only woman who has been going through a challenging situation because of her stand against harassment. The story of Hina*, a well-known voice on radio and TV, is not all that different from the lady officer’s.

Hina’s fifteen-year professional career as a voiceover artist came to a halt after she raised her voice against sexual harassment at her workplace. Although she has won the harassment case, she has been subjected to defamation of character and is now struggling to find a job. According to Hina, the perpetrators after losing the harassment case appealed before the governor, but the decision was held in her favour. They then proceeded to appeal in the SHC where the case is pending for the last few years. They also filed a defamation case against her, which is pending since 2018 and its hearing is yet to start.

Yusra Gilani, a Doctor of Pharmacy suffering from a disability of a rare type B, shares that a large number of women with disabilities face the problem of sexual harassment, but because of the sensitivity of the issue, they don’t talk about it openly. Maria Qureshi says disabled women are easy victims of sexual harassment.

Saba* from Islamabad, on the condition of anonymity, spoke to this correspondent that she was terminated from her job last year because she resisted misuse of power against her. She says that her HR manager used to harass her, using humiliating language against her. When she reported his behaviour to the top management, they instead of launching a transparent inquiry asked her to resign on the pretext that her services were not needed anymore. When asked about the role of a harassment committee, she said that her former office did not have one.

The ombudsman and interference

Is the ombudsman free from court interference? To get a response, this correspondent repeatedly approached via phone the Sindh Ombudsman but failed to get a reply. When Kashmala Tariq, Federal Ombudsperson for Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace, was asked the same question, she said that the Federal Ombudsman Secretariat for Protection Against Harassment (FOSPAH) is an autonomous quasi-judicial statutory body. It is empowered to decide cases and pass judgments independently, and harassers rarely approach the high court.

Ombudsperson Kashmala Tariq says that FO and IHC are two separate courts with separate ambits. Any person who is not satisfied with the decision can file an appeal in the President House, but ninety-nine percent of their decisions are upheld.

Advocate Khadija Ali says that provincial ombudsman and high courts are separate courts that have separate ambits. The provincial ombudsmen are empowered to decide cases regarding harassment.

The ground reality

According to a survey conducted by a news publication in 2018, only seventeen percent of those who experienced harassment approached their organisation’s internal inquiry committees. The data doesn’t reflect the accurate number of employees who face workplace harassment. The statistics from FOSPAH show that the complaint rate for sexual harassment in the workplace has increased from eighty-eight in 2017 to 1,605 in 2022.

The FOSPAH annual report 2022 outlines that the the total number of complaints from 2018 to 2022 was 2,169 in the government sector, 582 lodged by women and 148 by men. In the private sector, there were 994 complaints from women and 445 by men.

Islamabad based Alliance Against Sexual Harassment states that about ninety-three percent of working women, in both private and public sectors, acknowledge being harassed.

Women victims commonly face sexually suggestive comments, are asked out on dates, and are threatened if sexual demands are refused. Annual credential reports are used to threaten and prevent subordinates from complaining to seek redress. Office managements often ignore them out of fear of upsetting the harassers who are generally in senior positions. The report states that private sector organisations appear to be involved in more cases of sexual harassment due to lack of job security and absence of regulatory mechanisms.

Point to ponder

Pakistan has always struggled to protect human rights, especially women rights, as per international standards. The shifting pattern of globalization has resulted in more female participation in the workplace, but this economic growth came at a cost of human rights violations and abuses. The redressal system for women experiencing harassment, discrimination, victimisation, and humiliation is flawed. Mechanisms are not sufficiently comprehensive and robust. Harassment of women continues unabated because there are too many inconsistencies in the system and virtually no transparency and accountability for state and private institutions and organisations.

Women are reluctant to lodge complaints of harassment because they fear reprisals from their bosses who are often in very senior positions and are able to sideline complaints or frustrate the final outcome. In this prevailing culture of misogyny, women’s talent and ability are being suffocated.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of victims of harassment at the workplace


Shazia Mehboob Tanoli is an investigative journalist based in Islamabad. She tweets @shizrehman. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writer.