What does a student do at a crossroads when her two options are either to allow herself to be sexually harassed or to fail in her exams if she refuses to cooperate? Sara*, a management sciences student of Federal Urdu University of Arts, Sciences and Technology, Islamabad, is facing this dilemma, and doesn’t know whom to report to as there is no sexual harassment committee at the university.
Sara is one of thousands of women who are daily harassed at different institutions, government and private offices. There is currently no platform to report these advances, nor is there enough awareness about related laws.
Three years have passed since the passage of the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 by parliament. As per rules, it has to be acted upon with the help of ombudsmen offices in provinces. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan do not have ombudsmen yet.
Most of the public and private organisations’ employees and bosses remain unaware of regarding the act. They also don’t know which forums to approach in case of harassment-related issues.
As per the legislation, all organisations, including federal and provincial government ministries, departments, corporations, educational institutions, private commercial organisations and registered civil society associations, will be required to form inquiry committees of at least three members each - one of them a woman - to probe complaints and give their findings within 30 days to the competent authority concerned, that will award recommended penalties.
No action at the provinces
“Here, we are dealing with the federal capital area, and we facilitate offices in provinces which are connected with the centre,” said Aziz Iqbal, an official at the Federal Ombudsman for sexual harassment office in Islamabad.
Aziz said that so far, their office has received only 139 applications and appeals since its inception, of which 130 have been disposed of and nine are under process.
The situation is no better at the provincial level. K-P’s organisations and institutions have not as yet followed the orders as per the Act and establish three-member committees.
Balochistan’s situation is similar, where the Women’s Development Department is looking to enact its own law. The law is currently with the law ministry for vetting.
Salma Qureshi, the focal person and additional secretary at the Department, Quetta, said that as the law is yet to be passed by the provincial assembly.
“People can go to the district court against any department and person violating the act or not implementing the provisions,” she said, adding that they have not received any application of harassment since constitution of the body. In Qureshi’s opinion, the environment in the province is generally respectful for women and incidences of harassment are isolated.
The province of Sindh does have an ombudsman while Kinnaird College Lahore’s former principal, Dr Mira Phailbus, has been appointed the Punjab ombudswoman.
Another official at the office, on condition of anonymity, said they receive dozens of complaints from females about sexual harassment but don’t want to be named for fear of action.
Member, Alliance Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace (AASHA), Maleeha Hussain said that “if people see any violation of law, they should report to lower courts, as the offices of ombudsperson have not been formed by some provinces.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2013.
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