Mar 29, 2009

The silent menace

Sexual harassment is far more prevalent in the workplace than most people realise, faced across all income levels and all occupations
By Madiha Mujahid
Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that is explicitly or implicitly exploitative, intimidating or derogatory and unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, resulting in the creation of an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment, which is often referred to as "Eve-teasing" in Pakistan includes, but is not limited to, unwelcome sexual advances, unsolicited requests for sexual favours or other unwanted verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature made against another person. In fact, in the broadest sense, any conduct of a sexual nature that makes an employee uncomfortable has the potential to be classified as sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is far more prevalent in the workplace than most people realise and this widespread difficulty is faced across all income levels and all occupations in Pakistan, much like all other countries. No woman is free of this predicament, whether it is a labourer or a high-powered legislator in the National Assembly. The causes of sexual harassment at work can be complicated, and are often deeply rooted in social interaction and workplace politics.
In most instances, supervisors and employers can grow accustomed to the power they have over their employees. This can lead to an abuse of authority, which is owing to the fact that the nature of work relationships can quite often be intimate and intense and employees are dependant on each other for teamwork and support, and are dependant on their supervisor's approval for opportunities and career success.
A supervisor who is guilty of sexual harassment may only offer a subordinate a promotion or other honours in exchange for sexual favours or deny them job benefits if his inappropriate advances are rebuffed. Similarly, submission to or rejection of such conduct might be made a term or condition of a person's job, pay or career.
Working in close proximity can sometimes blur the professional boundaries delineating proper and improper workplace conduct and lead people to overstep this line. Politics can be a catalyst, and problems caused by poor management, workplace bullying, frustration, and job insecurity, etc., can create hostile environments that leak over into working relationships.
Sexual harassment leads to the establishment of a hostile work environment, which is a form of harassment that is less blatant and harder to define. Such a work environment is created by unwelcome sexual behaviour or behaviour directed at an employee because of that employee's sex that is offensive, uncomfortable and threatening and that adversely affects that employee's ability to do his or her job.
No occupation is immune from sexual harassment; however, reports of harassment of women are higher in fields that have traditionally excluded them. Men still hold on to most of the workplace supervisory positions, and they are the ones who decide whether or not a complaint of sexual harassment is justified. Because of this, if a woman complains about the man who is troubling her, for the most part, she is the one who will be considered the problem.
Gender discrimination also plays a role in this phenomenon, as women in Pakistan are not regarded as being equal to men in terms of their capabilities and prowess in their jobs. Women are stereotyped into traditional roles and are not accorded their due rights, based simply on their gender. Common claims of gender discrimination consist of unequal pay or unequal promotions.
The sexual harassment of women is a serious cause for concern as it causes both physical and emotional anguish to these beleaguered women. The more serious the nature of the harassment, the more harm will be inflicted on these victims. It also impacts their financial well-being as they might start taking time off from work to avoid dealing with the problem, or in more serious cases, leave their jobs altogether. It dissuades women from working in male-dominated occupations and unfortunately restricts women to the more women-oriented occupation, such as teaching, home based self-employment, working in factories that stitch clothes, etc. This in turn severely hinders the scope of the personal development and economic contribution of these women.
In Pakistan, a number of steps are being taken to counter this difficulty faced by the multitude of workingwomen in Pakistan. Humera Alwani, an MPA from Sindh belonging to the PPP, drafted the workplace sexual harassment bill in 2006 after a well publicised incident in the Sindh assembly in which a male member sent a note to a female member of the opposition which resulted in a furore after the recipient, Shazia Marri, claimed that it contained a number of indecencies. Alwani states that this is what spurred her into action and compelled her to think seriously about the bill, for if women were not even safe in the higher echelons of power, than their plight would clearly be much worse in other occupations.
According to her, this bill is mandatory, "Women need a secure work place where they can participate in efforts for their economic well-being and prosperity." The bill imposes stern warnings, demotions, terminations and fines 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 offences, 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. Alwani was of the view that the other three provinces of the country should also draft similar legislation to curtail the issue of the sexual harassment of women in the workplace.
Another very important step that has been taken to combat this problem is the formation of Aasha, (Alliance Against Sexual Harassment) that came into being through the collaboration of a number of civil society organisations which joined forces with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Pakistan's Ministry of Women Development to initiate this pioneering organisation. The members of Aasha comprise of Action Aid Pakistan, Bedari, Hawwa Associates, Mehergarh, Interactive Resource Centre (IRC) and PILER. The basic principle behind the setting up of this organisation is to create awareness about this problem and to facilitate both the public and private sector in achieving a society free of sexual harassment of women.
Unfortunately in Pakistan, most employers display a surprisingly casual attitude towards this rampant problem plaguing most of the female workers. Such a course of action is highly unproductive, as all employers must take affirmative action to prevent harassment of these vulnerable females in the workplace. One good way to do so would be to encourage the female employees who might be the victim of any such persecution to come forth, confident in the belief that their claims would not only receive a fair hearing, but would also be redressed in the most expedient manner possible. In this regard, it then becomes the binding responsibility of every employer or supervisor to any complaint of sexual harassment seriously and to take the required appropriate action immediately. Additionally, it must be ensured that employees who bring charges do not face any kind of retaliation. This can be made possible through the provision of the strictest assurance of confidentiality to any female who registers a complaint against her perpetrator.
Employers should also lay down strict guidelines proclaiming that any person found guilty of any such behaviour that is deemed as sexual harassment would face strict disciplinary action or the termination of their services altogether. This is because perpetrators of sexual harassment need to understand that their lewd and unprofessional conduct would neither go unobserved nor unpunished. It is essential that all persons in an organisation, from the bottom of the hierarchy to the top, must be aware of the fact that their personal demeanour must be unimpeachable if they wish to continue with their employment.

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