By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Friday, August 15, 2008
A second-term member of the Sindh provincial assembly is pushing Pakistan's first effort to outlaw sexual harassment in the workplace. Two years ago her draft bill fizzled, but this time she thinks it could become law within a month.
LAHORE, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)--Humera Alwani drafted a workplace sexual harassment bill in 2006 when she was a first-term member of the Sindh provincial assembly. But as a member of the opposition Pakistan People's Party she didn't get very far.
This year, after taking her oath of office for a second term on April 5 and with her party now in control, she's confident the bill has a better future.
Sindh's chief minister has approved the draft law for presentation to the provincial cabinet, Alwani says. Within a month she expects it to be discussed in the Sindh assembly, where she's pretty sure it will get passed, since her party is now in power.
The bill imposes strict warnings, demotions, terminations and fines of up to $700 on those found guilty of harassing women at work in Sindh, the second most populous of Pakistan's four provinces. In the most serious cases--sexual assault and repeat offenses--perpetrators could face jail time as well as fines. Non-payment of fines can lead to imprisonment of up to 30 days. The law also recommends that the person who was harassed receive half the fine as compensation.
The bill requires a district judge to rule on a complaint within 30 days. The judge would be advised by a local government representative or employer's committee charged with looking into the complaint.
Alwani says her slain party leader, Benazir Bhutto, a two-time prime minister, spurred her work on the bill. Two years ago, while Bhutto was in self-exile, Alwani says Bhutto called her for a meeting in Dubai and encouraged her to keep working on the bill.
"It was she who gave me strength and courage to work on this issue," Alwani says. "She empowered women within the party and gave us a chance to be part of the legislature."
Alwani says Bhutto gave party campaign slots to female workers without any special political ties while other party leaders favored female relatives of male politicians.
Alwani considers sexual harassment a widespread menace hanging over the Pakistani workplace. She says it discourages women from joining male-dominated occupations and causes women to herd together in all-female occupations that minimize contact with men: teaching in girls' schools, stitching factories with female managers and family farms.
She has circulated the bill among nongovernmental groups, representatives of the media, legislators, academics and women's rights activists and plans to incorporate some of their recommendations to make the bill as effective as possible.
Alwani says she has written to the federal ministry for women's development to help encourage Pakistan's other three provinces to draft similar laws. To push a national reach for the bill she says she plans to rope in party member Fehmida Mirza, the speaker of the national assembly. She hopes she will bring the issue to the national assembly and campaign for passage of anti-harassment laws in all the provincial assemblies.
Zia Awan, president of Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, a group based in Karachi that provided legal expertise to help draft the bill, says harassers act with impunity and the women they prey upon usually say nothing or quit their jobs. Women who bring their complaints to bosses or colleagues, he says, are often encouraged to hush up the affair and having their cases highlighted in the media is detrimental to their families.
The Alliance Against Sexual Harassment is a group of nongovernmental organizations that formed in Islamabad in 2001 to draft a comprehensive code for gender justice at the workplace. It has provided an extensive definition of sexual harassment, which the Sindh bill is likely to incorporate, and includes cat-calling, touching, teasing female colleagues, intimidation, leering, making offensive gestures and making comments with sexual overtones.
The alliance, on the request of Attiya Inayatullah, a former minister for women's development, social welfare and special education, produced a code of conduct that has been adopted by many civil society groups, schools, banks and private-sector companies, including the Karachi-based First Women Bank Limited. The bank caters to Pakistani women by extending microfinancing and consumer loans and agricultural loans.
Geo Television, the country's most popular satellite news channel that airs content in Urdu, Pakistan's national language, also adopted the code. The Karachi-based company was ranked among the 10 most gender-friendly organizations by the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment in 2006.
Such volunteers, however, represent only a small fraction of Pakistan's economy.
Muhammad Akram, a human resource manager at a Pakistani bank in Lahore, says the perception of sexual harassment varies from one employer to the next, indicating the need for a clear workplace standard. For example, a pat on the back of a female colleague can be seen as a show of acknowledgment in some workplaces, a sexual advance in another.
Alwani says she believes members of the cabinet and parliament will address such issues when they discuss the bill.
Alwani began to think seriously about the bill in 2006 after a violent incident in the Sindh Assembly that was sparked by a male representative sending a note to a female opposition member.
The recipient, Shazia Marri, was infuriated by it and claimed it contained indecencies. She passed the note to Nisar Ahmed Khuhro, a member of the Pakistan People's Party and the leader of opposition in the Sindh assembly at that time. Other members in her party were incited to beat up the sender of the note--Eshwar Lal, from then-ruling Pakistan Muslim League party--inside the assembly building. Lal claimed that he had only inquired about Marri's health, but she insisted he had written much more. She refused to reveal the "objectionable" contents of the note.
In the aftermath, Arbab Rahim, who was then the chief minister of Sindh, blamed Marri for the fiasco, accusing her of being provocative. "Female opposition members with makeup come from the beauty parlors to the assembly every day," he said. "There is something wrong with them."
Alwani says if women are not safe in the highly public legislature then they're probably not safe anywhere.
Lala Hasan Pathan, spokesperson for Aurat Foundation, a women's advocacy group based in Lahore, says the legal definition of the workplace should be expanded to include bus stops, streets and public transport vehicles where working women are often harassed.
Even if the law is passed, Pathan warns, many women will continue to refrain from reporting harassment. Not only are such incidents difficult to prove, but many women shy away from raising a topic that might embarrass them and their families. That mindset, he says, will be the next major hurdle.
Shahzada Irfan Ahmed works as senior reporter for The News, the leading English daily in Pakistan.