Dr. Tahir Rauf
New sexual harassment legislation, an amendment to the Criminal Law was passed in the National Assembly and later signed by the president Asif Ali Zardai this week. The bill provides protection to “working women at workplace” against harassment and intimidation. The offence is punishable with either three years imprisonment, Rs.500, 000 fine or both.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances and the victim(s) may be a woman, or a man or a child. In a civil society, the victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct or associated with the victim or offender.
However, many women rights groups and NGOs have expressed an overwhelming response to the legislation. Without a doubt, this passage of legislation advocates limiting behaviors on the basis of morality and promises new cultural and social values of the daily norms. Laws are made about defending people’s rights from being violated by others. However, the new law’s implementation is an implicated issue considering moral and social behaviors based upon an evaluation of the current circumstances in Pakistani society.
The new piece of law depicts women’s protection only in the work place. But which part of the law will defend women when they steps out of the home alone walking to school, work, or market for shopping. It is common occurrence that men (old or young) constantly glair at alone women with lusty looks, humiliate with vulgar remarks and often stalk. If women travels on a bus, men restrict her entrance; make her nervous with aggressive shoving, and limiting her passage to occupy the ladies seats. Most women remain silent on advances because of family honor or fear of personal safety. These intimidating behaviors and harassment to women have become a norm of daily Pakistani life.
Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in any physical setting constitutes sexual harassment. Unwelcomed atmosphere creates hostile environment which cause mental distresses.
Impoverished home-maids women work long hours, going door to door, doing house chores for little money, leftover food and the occasionally used cloths from the Begham sahib. In addition, young girls of such domestic workers often baby-sit, side-by-side with their mother for Begham’s young children. How these domestic workers face inappropriate behaviors and verbal or physical abuse of their employers is a shameful story of the affluent civil society. Neither labor laws nor sexual harassment act provides security to these women. There is no union of domestic workers which can define their rights and responsibilities, set minimum wage, and limit working hours; its absence perpetuates deeper poverty in the society.
In spite of these courageous women who come to work, in rain or shine, hot or cold weather, to support their family.
There are many examples available in newspapers that domestic workers were molested, harassed, raped, and occasionally beaten to death. Indeed victims complain, but no one hears them, in most circumstances the police fail to react. The wealthy and powerful escape from punishment either bribing to local police or by offering few lakh rupees compensation to the family.
Who will guard peasant laborers, particularly women and children in rural areas from land-owner’s constant abuse and harassment? Similarly there is no protection for women construction workers in urban areas. Most are abused daily, often raped and molested. Many incidents are not registered in police nor does any piece of law defend them from culprits. Breaking a silence may cause lose of employment or worse. Nothing has altered the fortune of Pakistani women; power and money seek each others.
Poverty is quoted to justify child labor. The children’s earning are essential for their own existence as well as household and can often makes a difference between starvation and survival. Though, adolescent work in the western countries for home delivery newspapers, even in freezing temperatures; or work in fast food and grocer chains, but it does not compare to their Pakistani counterparts who do not have the same essential rights and working conditions, law protecting them. That should be an underline the current condition of Pakistani young workers. This should not be considering an excuse to push children to work place.
Nevertheless, framing a law is important in a civil society but its implementation is essential, backed by the checks and balances by a wider process of the government agencies. Otherwise a piece of legislature on its own is useless. Agencies need to open and legitimize the process by establishing informal as well as formal complaint processes and networks of impartial counselors and investigators who are qualified to hear complaints. Unfortunately, a few number of women judges are working in lower and higher courts or in civil administration. These women may provide a hope or at least sympathize to victim women.
In addition, young women should understand that awareness of their rights can bring a meaningful change to their lives or others. Otherwise the current bill may be another piece of meaningless legislation; silence of the lambs will prevail.
Dr. Rauf works in the University of Rochester. New York E-mail: Trauf24@gmail.com