Breaking the Silence
by Lubna Khan
A recent survey reveals shocking levels of sexual harassment against women
in the workplace
1997 eleven women working at the UNDP offices in Islamabad filed a case
against a senior member of the management. The charge: sexual harassment.
Secure in the trust and support senior management provided him, the
accused had been abusing his powerful position by demanding sexual favours
from female staff members, knowing they had no choice but to comply.
This had continued for years, each victim staying silent out of
humiliation, fear and insecurity. The women finally found the courage to
unite against him when they discovered the organisation had a sexual
harassment policy. Frustrated with the lack of response from senior
management concerned with hiding an “embarrassing situation,” they
approached headquarters in the US, who sent a fact-finding panel to
investigate. The panel found clear evidence of sexual harassment in four
of the eleven cases, while the others involved clearly inappropriate
behaviour but could not be categorised as sexual harassment.
Determined to make the accused pay for his ‘indulgence’, the women
pursued their case in court. Most chose to leave the organisation rather
than bend to social demands and pressure from local management to drop
their case. Their efforts were rewarded in August 1999 with an historic
victory, and the manager was fired.
Their case is an important milestone in the ongoing effort to tackle
sexual harassment in Pakistan. “Regardless of progress made in gender
equity, sexual harassment of women continues to be a violation suffered by
most working women in Pakistan. This rarely discussed problem typifies the
reality that women are still not accepted as active contributors to the
economy,” explains Dr Fouzia Saeed, one of the eleven women who fought
the landmark UNDP case, presently country director for Actionaid Pakistan
and the woman spearheading the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA).
AASHA is the most active and forthright organisation addressing sexual
harassment in Pakistan today. It aims to publicise the issue and assist
the government and private sectors to find ways to deal with it. A
nationwide study conducted by AASHA to analyse sexual harassment in the
Pakistani workplace reveals the problem knows no boundaries and no
profession is immune. Unwelcome physical advances, unwanted sexual
innuendos and knowing looks are routine, while more serious offences
include indecent exposure, sexual molestation and violent attacks.
Usually, such incidents are suppressed and often the victims are even
blamed for bringing it upon themselves.
For example, 58 percent of nurses and doctors interviewed admitted being
sexually harassed, usually at the hands of other doctors, nurses,
attendants, patients and visitors. Domestic servants suffer even more, 91
percent disclosing they’d been victims of some sexual abuse. Life is
tough for these women, who have to deal with harassment on their own.
There are endless stories of domestic servants being fondled, beaten and
raped by men in the houses where they work. In some cases they are even
sold to strangers for the night. For women working in fields and brick
kilns the problem is even more acute, with a staggering 95 percent having
faced sexual harassment of some form (including rape and torture), many
facing it on a regular basis. The harassers are usually landlords,
munshies, contractors and co-workers. “Face or beauty does not
matter,” says one field worker resignedly, “It is enough that you are
The situation is no better for families forced to work in bonded labour.
The owners and contractors openly tease and intimidate the women. It has
become so common for women to be stripped then sexually molested in front
of their men, that people have become numb to its cruelty – it doesn’t
even raise eyebrows anymore. The few who dare to react to such assaults
with bravery are treated worse than animals. Most, reconciled to their
fate, realise the futility of bravado. “Even after this disgrace we are
bound to work for the same employer because we cannot escape our debt,”
says one. It is a common sentiment.
Contrary to common perception, higher status and education does not
guarantee escape. According to the same AASHA survey, 93 percent of women
working in both private and public sectors acknowledge being harassed.
Victims commonly face sexually suggestive comments, are asked out on
dates, and threatened if sexual demands are refused. Annual credential
reports are used to threaten subordinates. When victims launch complaints
to seek redress, the management often ignores them out of fear of
upsetting the harassers, who frequently hold senior positions.
Although both men and women are subject to such mistreatment, it is
ultimately much more an exercise of male power rooted deep in the economic
and social position and authority they enjoy in the home, workplace and
society. Sexual harassment is an issue that crosses all cultures and
beliefs; a manifestation of power relationships. Women have historically
been, and still are, far more likely to suffer sexually offensive
behaviour than men. Sexual harassment is seen by AASHA as gender-specific
discrimination and is defined by the organisation as, “any unwelcome
sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other unwelcome verbal or
physical conduct of a sexual nature”. In the workplace it can interfere:
it might be made a condition of employment and can create an intimidating,
hostile or offensive working environment.
CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
Against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and
often described as an international bill of rights for women, states:
“the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the
world and the cause of peace require the participation of women on equal
terms with men in all fields”. Article 3 of the convention clearly
requires states to take “all appropriate measures, including
legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for
the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human
rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men”.
Yet sexual harassment is viewed, if at all, more as a personal problem
than an issue demanding a societal response, and many deny the problem
even exists, partly due to the discomfort of facing the reality and partly
because of our society’s taboo of all things sexual. We have been
conditioned to view male domination and sexism as ‘normal’. Behaviour
such as touching, suggestive language or gestures, and subtle advances, no
matter how unwelcome, are often accepted as part of male human nature and
ignored, encouraging offenders to continue, confident there is no threat
of the woman reacting openly.
Women wanting to react are prevented from doing so by social taboos. An
inadequate legal framework, and the humiliation and public exposure women
face, discourage them from making a stand. A victim of sexual harassment
has much more than bodily integrity to protect, and a victim of harassment
at the workplace has much more to lose by taking action than remaining
But continued silence won’t make the problem disappear. Sexual
harassment will only be taken seriously when it becomes a serious issue.
For it to become an issue, it is imperative that those who feel strongly
about it become vocal and active. This is a battle that has to be fought
head on. Sexual harassment has to be recognised as an offence. That it is
not is a reflection of how a woman’s role and status is perceived by
society. Any major change will involve a shift in attitudes towards women,
as well as their increased empowerment.
In their quest for such a change, AASHA’s efforts are directed towards
influencing policy makers to provide protection to women in the workplace
and to ensure a safe and healthy working environment. Sexual harassment in
the workplace is now at least recognised as a labour and management issue.
It is prohibited by law in many countries, including some in Asia like Sri
Lanka, India and Malaysia. Having ratified CEDAW in addition to signing
ILO Conventions and other international and national laws dealing with
this issue, the Pakistani legislators have no choice but to take measures.
Although the Constitution and the Criminal Penal Code do address women’s
equality and therefore sexual harassment to some extent, there is no law
or clear policy on harassment in the workplace.
Responding to the situation, AASHA has drafted a Code for Gender Justice
in the Workplace. The objective of this code of conduct is to improve
labour conditions and enable a working environment free of sexual
harassment, abuse and intimidation by presenting a comprehensive strategy
to employers. Designed to become integral to the management policies of
public, private, and non-governmental organisations and educational
institutes, the code is an attempt to effectively deal with sexual abuse
around the workplace and provides a mechanism for complaints and redress
through special enquiry committees. AASHA is presently introducing the
code in the private sector.
As Dr Fouzia Saeed puts it, “Hiding behind any denial will not work any
more. It’s time that we face our own value system and question the basic
concept of woman that we have in our heads, which we have unconsciously
inherited, and which we do not want to let go of.”