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Breaking the Silence

by Lubna Khan
A recent survey reveals shocking levels of sexual harassment against women in the workplace

In December 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 a woman”.

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 silent.

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.”

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