March issue 2011

By | News & Politics | People | Q & A | Published 13 years ago

“We are making sure the law is institutionalised”
– Dr Fouzia Saeed, Chairperson,
National Implementation Watch Committee and
AASHA (Alliance Against Sexual Harassment)


Q: The journey for a policy and legal framework against Sexual Harassment started way back in 2001 — and it took up to 2010 to achieve this…

A: Initially, people weren’t even familiar with the term ‘sexual harassment.’ In the government, they didn’t even want to refer to the word ‘sexual’ and just used ‘harassment.’ In the first two years, our major achievement was to get the issue acknowledged. Then we developed a policy to be instituted in the formal sector. As a strategy, we felt that it was better to take on [the issue of] formal workplace harassment first because it was relatively easy to manage, and then take up the issue of harassment at bus stops and market places. We worked with the government from day one, especially the Ministry of Women’s Development (MoWD) and the Ministry of Labour. That’s how the Code of Conduct for Gender Justice came to be — incidentally, that’s what it had to be called, so they could stomach it.

The policy that we developed was agreed to by the government, but once it was finalised they didn’t accept it, even though every word had been negotiated. We compromised and compromised, but when it was time to implement it, they backed out. The minister for MoWD and Labour were interested, but the commitment of the larger party — the ruling party — was not there. So the policy was not approved by the cabinet division.

Q: Is this because of a general mindset when it comes to women’s issues, or conservative elements within parties?

A: One finds the well-educated, those with a supposedly liberal façade to be the most difficult. On women’s issues, they don’t have their act together at all, even though these are simple issues. All we are saying is ‘respect women.’ If I had to pick one challenge throughout this period, it has been dealing with the bureaucracy — especially the women’s development secretaries.

We found a lot of resistance from the secretaries of the women’s ministry, throughout these 11 years. Most of our time was spent on pushing the draft through, getting comments from other ministries, getting it vetted. It was less so in the assemblies, although that is the longer process. And the sluggishness of the process is another thing. I was amazed that there were men in the ministry — not secretaries — who would sit and joke about the issue, but were happy to be drawing salaries from the same ministry. The only secretary who was helpful, who used to hear us out, was Salim Mehmood Salim. At least he didn’t say women should not have dignity.

Q: What kind of feedback did you receive from them? How dismissive were the secretaries about the issue — were they brazen about it or would they sugarcoat the dismissal?

A: Secretaries said [harassment] is the fault of women, because of the clothes they wear etc. We were confronted with very traditional, stereotypical myths and misinformation — if she gets beaten up, harassed or raped, blame the woman.

Q: Did you find the private sector more forthcoming?

A: Much more! Now I am experiencing some conservativeness in the private sector, but back then we were dealing with whoever we could get along with. The Chamber of Commerce, Karachi, was particularly open-minded at the time; they were very clear on women’s issues. The initial step of getting the first few organisations to adopt the code of conduct voluntarily was difficult. But we managed to get 300 to adopt it eventually, before we started drafting the legislation.We had the labour unions, chambers, civil society, academia and some law-enforcing agencies on our side, and that really helped build the momentum.

We had them adopt and implement the code, which we then studied for five years. The unique aspect of this legislation (Protection Against [Sexual] Harassment Act 2010) is that it was based on research, it reflected the ground realities, it was tested and huge mobilisation of all sorts of stakeholders took place before it was proposed. Then when we began political engagement, we were again faced with the same stereotypical myths, where men said what if they [the complainants] lie. We said that happens with murder, theft, etc. Eyewitnesses lie. That doesn’t mean there should be no law. We were adamant that it should be a government law, that there should be a unanimous vote on it or, at least we have most of the parties on board — and that is what we did and how we did it.

In the National Assembly we got through with a unanimous vote, but in the Senate, there were problems. Sometimes there are conservative people within a progressive party or ruling party.

Q: Which parties were receptive and supportive?

A: The PPP, ANP and the MQM were totally on board. They all had a very clear stance, but it took us a while to get them on board. MQM was absolutely clear on this and they made sure their party members voted. Half of the PML-Q — members in their individual capacity — supported us. Wasim Sajjad, the leader of the opposition in the Senate, also did not oppose us. PML-N came on board at the very last stage. We didn’t want to let go of anybody.

Q: What kind of convincing was required?

A: Three years of my life were totally donated to this process — every minute of 24 hours. One needs to do a lot of lobbying and people do turn around, and they do so with their hearts.

We started with attitudes such as ‘women bring it upon themselves,’ ‘it will not work,’ ‘it will not be implemented,’ but the end point for most of them was, ‘we are totally with you, nobody can vote it down and our women need this kind of help.’ The word ‘sexual’ was omitted from the title because they are still unable to swallow the term, but we have incorporated it in all our definitions. We have made compromises, but not at all on the overall integrity of the law. There were times when we said no, like the time we were asked to put in a clause outlining the punishment for a woman if she lies. That is something we did not compromise on.

Civil society needs to engage. If you convince people, they do listen to you. And I have found politicians to be much more receptive than bureaucrats.

Q: Do you feel the increase in the number of women in parties and the legislature has helped?

A: Yes, that has been big help, especially with people like Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Sherry Rehman and Bushra Gohar there. Women were very supportive — I do not know of a single woman who was not. But there were also men who were very supportive. Raza Rabbani has a very clear stance on women’s issues and it was effortless lobbying with him. Farooq Naek was very helpful and lent his support wholeheartedly. Farooq Sattar, Afrasiab Khattak and Shah Mehmood Qureishi must also be mentioned. Both the President and the PM were very encouraging in their words; the PM and his wife also lobbied for us.

Q: You are also heading the National Implementation Watch Committee (NIWC), and the committee has done a lot of work already…

A: Yes, we are in full swing. Our job is to get the law implemented into the structure of the system. While I wear the hat of the committee, which is a green hat, our strategy remains very activist. But we are not going and raising awareness and telling people to comply one by one; we are making sure the law is institutionalised. We are working on convincing regulatory bodies to facilitate their members to comply.

The federal ministries were the first to form committees. And this is not easy. Notifications, committees, getting the code posted in the offices — all this has to be done. Now, if you go to the planning commission or the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, you will see the code posted on every floor. The State Bank has included the law in its audit, and the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has also issued policies, which means the code will be instituted in all universities and will apply to students as well.

We have been trying to get the organisations that have complied — the number for which is in the thousands — to give us feedback so we can create an online database. But the Pakistani mindset is not quite professional. We do do the things, but then we don’t report back. PEMRA issued a direction 4-5 months ago, but haven’t we received any performas or news. While the media was extremely supportive of the whole process (of lobbying), it is one of the slowest sectors to comply with the law. Only Geo and Dawn have done it, so far.

Q: Does the NIWC’s mandate extend to the committees as well — looking into their performance and checking up on the complaints?

A: The law doesn’t require anybody to report the complaints and we want to keep them confidential. We want the management to be empowered to deal with its own garbage. But organisations are required to tell us if they have formed a committee, if they have put up the code in a common lounge (or public area) and issued the orders that the law is part of their HR policy.

From Mehergarh — AASHA’s secretariat — we conduct a lot of awareness sessions and workshops for trainers from different sectors. So, for example, to banks we say get a few of your HR people trained and then they can take care of the bank. Similarly, HEC is sending a few people to us next week for training. Then we do one-day trainings for inquiry committee members. On the third of this month, the planning commission is hosting a big seminar of 150 people. They are inviting all inquiry committee members from all the government departments for a half-day session which is a great initiative.

In terms of provincial progress, Sindh and Punjab are ahead of the other two provinces. But what they do need to do immediately is appoint the provincial ombudspersons; the federal ombudsperson has already been appointed. As of March, our committee has decided to focus on the provinces and we also decided to shuffle the membership of the committee. It has not been approved yet, but it has been proposed that the heads of the women’s directorate from each province be asked to join the committee.

Q: What is the implementation mechanism for enforcing the law in public places?

A: Through the law-enforcing agencies. The top leadership is supportive, but it doesn’t serve us if the SHO or the person registering the FIR is not. So what we did was make a poster for stations, which outlines Section 509, what it covers, what they need to do, which sections it can be combined with. This has been done in 14 stations in Islamabad.

Awareness-raising is important and civil society and the media need to help with that. Putting pressure helps.

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.