At a time when students and faculty are bringing forward sexual harassment cases at public and private sector universities, misconceptions surrounding the Protection of Women against Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2010, have raised questions about its applicability on campuses.
After the introduction of the law, it was believed there would be fewer cases of harassment of students by faculty since organisations and educational institutes were bound to nominate three-member sexual harassment probe committees to investigate any reported cases.
There are about 158 universities in the country. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) issued Policy Guidelines against Sexual Harassment in Institutions of Higher Learning in 2010, to raise awareness about the issue on university campuses. The guideline is only available on the HEC website and not a single university administration has bothered to put it up on their institutions’ websites.
Nothing has been done to implement and create awareness about this law on campuses. The HEC had sent reminders to universities, to send the commission names of inquiry committee members and the cases reported or resolved, but not a single university bothered to reply.
But an incident involving a controller examinations has generated fresh debate since the year before. In 2013, Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) syndicate removed the controller examinations on the recommendations of the inquiry committee, but he was later restored when former president Asif Ali Zardari, who was also the chancellor of the university, overturned the punishment.
The official approached the president and argued that the law under which he had been removed was not applicable to the university since the educational institution did not fall under the category of workplaces.
The presidency first consulted the Ministry of Law, which termed the act “incomplete and faulty” and set the case aside. The QAU is reviewing two cases of sexual harassment but following the letter from the presidency the cases are being investigated under Efficiency and Discipline Rules 1973.
QAU Vice-Chancellor Etizaz Ahmad said they could not follow any other law to probe such cases after a letter from the presidency. In 2011, QAU became the first institution to receive a complaint from a student after the passage of the act.
Executive director of Mehergarh, a social welfare organisation, Maliha Husain said that there were actually misconceptions about the act. “In the definition of organisations, educational institutes are clearly mentioned in the act. Where is the confusion?” she asked, arguing that had the officials at the presidency and the Ministry of Law read thoroughly read the act, the misunderstanding would not have surfaced.
The accused is defined as “an employee or employer of an organisation against whom the complaint has been made, according to the act, while a complainant means a woman or man who has complained of harassment to the ombudsman or to the inquiry committee.
HEC Chairperson Dr Mukhtar Ahmad said there was a three-member body at the commission and harassment cases could also be forwarded to them. “We are working with Mehergarh to raise awareness on campuses and in September this year, we are launching seminars and sessions.”
Pakistan Peoples Party Senator Farhatullah Babar has submitted an amendment to explicitly bring colleges and universities under the purview of the act.
For educational institutions, the implementation of the law does not seem to be a priority. Earlier this year, when a harassment case was reported at the National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Islamabad, the administration nominated an all male three-member body. Later after a request by the complainant, a female member was also appointed. Interestingly, the person who was found guilty by the ad-hoc probe committee and removed from his position as head of the department was later appointed as head of another department. This happened despite the recommendation that the person was not fit to head any department.
At another university, a senior female faculty member approached the vice-chancellor with a harassment complaint against a head of department. A three-member body was constituted by the vice-chancellor, who appointed the accused person as the committee’s head, according to Hussain.
Interestingly, most universities have neither constituted three-member probe committees nor is there any awareness about how to cope with issues related to sexual harassment on campuses.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 8th, 2014.
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