March Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 19 years ago

Overnight three young sisters quit their nursing jobs at a public hospital. They leave without any fanfare, without a severance payout, and ostensibly for no reason. The reality is a shocking story: The girls have all been physically assaulted – and by no less than a group of senior doctors.

The nurses had been going about their work one night, when a senior doctor summoned them to his office on the pretext of discussing a work-related problem. What followed was an ordeal that the young women find difficult to talk about even today. After some time and obvious effort, one of them, who is still visibly shaken, harnesses the courage to speak out.

Says nurse Jamila: “A group of doctors entered the room and started to hurl insults at us, using very foul language. Then one of the them, seemingly unsatisfied by the barrage of verbal abuse directed at us, turned to his colleagues and started to incite them to ‘teach us a lesson we wouldn’t be quick to forget.’ Soon he started to hit us in the presence of everyone, including the lower staff, all of whom had by now collected to witness our humiliation. My sisters and I were badly hurt, but no one at the hospital came to our rescue.”

Since the nurses themselves offered no explanation for their ordeal, speculation mounted about what had caused it. “They must have been caught stealing,” said Salma, a housewife, “why else would they have left without creating a fuss?” Shehzad, a young stockbroker, surmised the nurses were probably discovered making a buck on the side by “offering their patients ‘special services’. It’s quite common,” he said. “Most nurses don’t come from very respectable families. A lot of them aren’t just working women. They’re also working girls.” And to add insult to injury, the sweeping statement: “Like PIA airhostesses, a lot of them have sex for money.” Similar reactions abounded across the board. The truth, however, is quite the reverse — and a tragic reminder of how gender discrimination, despite the great sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, is alive and well in 21st century Pakistan.

The real story? Jamila recounts, “Our ordeal was on account of my turning down the regular advances of a senior doctor. He used to follow me everywhere, trying to chat me up on every occasion he came into contact with me. At first, I just brushed off his inappropriate behaviour as part and parcel of the hazards of being a working woman. But when he realised I was adamant about maintaining a professional relationship, he started to pass lewd remarks about me to his colleagues. I bore all this silently, hoping it would just go away in time. But one night, the doctor broke into my hostel room. I managed to save myself by locking myself in the bathroom.” The doctor, however was not deterred. Jamila’s sister, who witnessed the situation continues. “He started to become abusive and threatening. “Other colleagues began to notice, and then to take cues from him, passing rude remarks directed at her.” It was then, that one of the sisters decided to confront the doctor. “I told him if he did not stay away from Jamila, I would register a formal complaint against him to the hospital board, detailing his misconduct.” As a direct consequence, later the same evening, Jamila and her sisters were attacked and ‘disciplined,’ by the doctor and his friends.

Across town, another nurse learns first-hand, what it really means to be a ‘working girl.’ Twenty-two-year-old Sarwat was on night duty at a private hospital, when a male patient beckoned her to his side. She obliged, whereupon, leering at her, he asked how much she “charged.” Before she could tell him off, he had unbuttoned his trousers and exposed himself to her. Sarwat was horrified and fled. Undeterred, the offender pursued her, but she managed to get away.

Jamila and Sarwat’s cases are not isolated ones. Given the statistics, they are, in fact, the norm rather than the exception. A staggering 58 per cent of the nurses in Pakistan have been victims of sexual harassment by co-workers and patients – and these are just the known cases. An indeterminate number of cases go completely unreported. Shockingly, compared to harassment rates for women in other professions, this figure is actually on the lower end. Take female domestic workers for example. Ninety-one per cent of these women say they have been subjected to sexual harassment abuse at least once on the job. A staggering 93 per cent of women working in both private and public sector organisations claim to have experienced some form of sexual harassment at the hands of their boss, their colleagues, even their clients. And 92 per cent of women speak of severe sexual harassment while commuting — usually to and from work — by public transport.

Ironically, the menace of sexual harassment is growing in proportion to the number of women entering the workplace, spurred by economic need. A technical report of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states that, “Worldwide, women now comprise an increasing share of the world’s labour force, at least one-third in all regions except northern Africa and western Asia.” In the rest of Asia, however, the percentage is even higher. The proportion of women registered as part of the labour force in 1995-97, “amounts to well over 40 per cent in East, South-East and Central Asia, and around one-third in South Asia,” by the report’s reckoning. The report continues that the majority of Asia’s women workers “are found in jobs with low security, low pay, low conditions of work, low status and having low bargaining power in a narrow range of occupations, all characteristics which enhance the risk of becoming subjected to sexual harassment.” In Nepal for example, domestic workers are highly vulnerable to sexual and other violence, and job environments which involve long periods of isolation, long hours and lack of social contact mean that few feel empowered enough to take action. The report cites one case of a 13-year-old domestic helper in Kathmandu who “was not only subjected to sexual harassment and assault, but also had boiling oil poured over her hand when she tried to say something about the incident.”

More shocking than the number of offences of this nature, perhaps, is the miniscule number of harassment cases that are filed. Judging by the statistics, the workplace poses one of the biggest dangers for women. However, while incidents of sexual harassment are a far from uncommon occurrence in western economies, there exists an increasing awareness among employers that if they are allowed to flourish unchecked, sexual harassment lawsuits may not be far behind. In contrast, in Pakistan, about 76 per cent of women say they do not even report such incidents to their parents, let alone register an official complaint. This despite the fact that according to Pakistani law, even a small offence like pinching a woman can result in three months of jail time for the pincher, and a man scratching his privates in a public place can be declared a goonda and sent to jail for up to two years. More serious offences are accorded proportionately harsher penalties. So why do such few women seek recourse to the law?

Firstly, few women are aware of their legal rights. Illiteracy, compounded by a male-dominated system determined to perpetuate a status-quo where the odds are heavily weighted in the males favour, yields little hope for women, who wouldn’t even know where to begin any search for justice. But equally, there is little faith in the legal system, where more often than not, laws are not worth even the paper they are inscribed on.

Additionally – and this a universal phenomenon – although the Pakistan Criminal Penal Code (PPC) states that any form of harassment is a crime, proving it is almost impossible.

While allegations of sexual harassment could be substantiated if they occurred in a public place, this is usually not the case. Most often, as in the nature of every crime involving stealth and secrecy, incidents such as these happen behind closed doors. And more often than not, in a society entrenched in guilt and denial over the issue of women’s sexuality, the victims find it hard to reconcile themselves to the social consequences of taking action. “What’s the point of speaking out?” asks Naila Ahmed, a young accounts executive at a local bank. “Even our natural allies – women themselves – prove malicious. If I were to raise a ruckus every time a man said something inappropriate or tried to feel me up in the marketplace, the only person I’d be hurting is myself. I’d just be branded ‘loose,’ blamed for ‘attracting attention.’ It’s easier to just grimace and bear it.”

Additionally the laws protecting women from what is really an occupational hazard, don’t address job-specific situations. For example the Civil Establishment Code, Pakistan’s goverment employee regulation, cites misconduct against all employees as a chargeable offence. However, it is completely devoid of any specific policies to address the problems of harassment between supervisors and their staff members. This, despite the studies done on the subject and made public.

In cognisance of this fact, six NGOs have worked collaboratively to come up with a policy to address this issue. The ‘Code of Conduct for Gender Justice,’ issued by the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment at the Workplace, or AASHA, in December 2001, is an initial attempt to jump-start the process of awareness. It defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when it interferes with work performance, or is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.” As such, the guideline is based on the principles of equal opportunity for men and women and their right to earn a livelihood without fear of abuse and harassment. “It reflects the provisions of the 1973 Constitution where non-discrimination on the basis of gender in public and workplaces is mentioned,” says Fouzia Saeed, country manager of Action Aid Pakistan, one of the main forces behind the code.

However, despite being on the agenda of the present cabinet for two consecutive meetings, the plan has not been officially endorsed. Nonetheless, its formulators are optimistic. They believe, once approved by the cabinet, all formal sector organisations listed in the code, including private sector organisations, educational institutions and NGOs, will be required to incorporate it in their workplace policy. The question is, will this be enough to induce women to speak up if they feel mistreated? Perhaps not, given the high costs involved, as the following case clearly demonstrates.

In December 1997, eight Pakistani and three foreign women in an international development organisation filed a sexual harassment case against a senior management staff member. However, despite the fact that the firm had a clear-cut policy on sexual harassment, which detailed the procedures to be followed in the event of a serious allegation, the response of senior management to the complainants was a far cry from supportive. The perpetrator, who enjoyed the trust and backing of senior management, had been consistently abusing his powerful position to demand sexual favours from his female team members. Matters came to a head when he dismissed a senior secretary who refused to have sex with him. The women decided it was time to speak up against their boss. To add insult to injury, a lawyer for the perpetrator was personally engaged by management through a panel of counsels, while the victims had to repeatedly request for representation for 10 months before they were assigned one. No assistance was afforded to the complainants by the local office, in a blatant attempt to stifle what the company believed was an “embarrassing situation.” In addition, the victims were threatened with termination and of bad evaluation reports during the course of the investigation. One of them was even coerced into signing a post-dated statement declaring she would not contest her case administratively. The tactics of intimidation, employed by the organisation, almost achieved their desired objective, as one by one, the female complainants involved in the legal action chose to quit, rather than fight back. Fortunately, matters came to a head when a fact-finding panel from the US head office arrived in Pakistan to investigate the case, and found clear evidence of sexual harassment in four of the 11 cases that had been reported. After an arduous two years, heads rolled and the perpetrator was fired by the head office. Clearly, however, victory had been achieved at a high cost for the victims.

The fact that the workplace — formal and informal — is a boys club and a man’s world, is undeniable. And some laws almost seem to suggest that it’s the men that need to be protected! The fact that a proposed amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code1898, for “punishment of the offence of molestation with sexual motive at work places,” was not approved in its original form, provides a good example. In response to an increase in reported incidents of sexual harassment at work places, the law and human rights ministry had submitted a summary of the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure to the cabinet on September 28, 2002. Speaking on the occasion Nasreen Azhar of Action Aid Pakistan, an NGO working on the issue, declared, “We have proposed a specific mechanism whereby women workers will be able to lodge complaints, even against their bosses, without revealing their identity. In a country where few women dare to work in a male-dominated atmosphere, it is imperative that they are encouraged through some constitutional cover.” The cabinet, however, decided that if the law was approved as drafted, it was likely to be misused, and therefore all sections except the amendment relating to molestation with sexual motives were passed. A source in the law ministry maintained that the law would create a number of uncalled-for problems and adversely affect working environments in offices. “It will empower women workers to lodge complaints against their male companions, without having to disclose their identity, and thus create a difficult working atmosphere for the males,” he contended. Saima Qadeer of Islamabad’s Women’s Welfare Agency, however, openly challenges this mindset. “The military regime is employing delaying tactics. I am not hopeful of any positive developments, since the regime fears a backlash from the so-called extremist quarters working in the country.”

Clearly then, it is an arduous mission to challenge the status quo. Lip service to promote gender equality apart, there remains a tendency to tiptoe around the hard issues — or defer them. As a result, little has changed over the years vis a vis the status of women.

Nowhere is this more visible perhaps, than in Sindh. A research project on gender and governance undertaken by the National Commission on the Status of Women in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank, reveals that gender insensitivity towards women employed at all levels in public sector institutions of the province has severely hampered meaningful participation and excluded them from significant and decision-making government jobs. At present, for example, the study reveals that not a single female government employee has been assigned a posting equivalent to BPS 21 and 22 in any of the provincial government departments or institutions, despite their seniority and good evaluation reports.

“If women are not allowed to advance on merit, this opens the door to quid-pro-quo sexual exploitation,” says an advocate in a Pakistani law firm. “Women may feel that the only way to maintain their jobs or climb the ladder is to allow themselves to be exploited.”

Fouzia Saeed of Action Aid, however, believes that a step-by-step approach in creating awareness could work well towards the creation of a woman-friendly working environment. “Many people think of management as bad guys but that is not true,” says Saeed. People are good and bad everywhere. Progressive employers and companies have taken the initiative of adopting the code. We should appreciate this and not be critical and cynical about whether they will be able to implement it or not.”

Whilst the code is certainly a step in the right direction, and provides a degree of protection to female employees in the formal sector, the fact remains that domestic workers are often excluded from protective labour legislation. And according to the ILO report, these are the very people who are, “very vulnerable to sexual harassment,” because of the “high degree of subordination between worker and employer.” These include, among others, “domestic workers, migrant workers and workers with little job security, women in male-dominated occupations, or in situations where a large number of women are supervised by a small number of men”.

“Whether you’re beautiful or not, it doesn’t matter, it is just enough that you’re a woman,” says Sajjida, a brick kiln worker. She is part of the thousands of women, excluded from any access to formal legislative channels. Sajjida also belongs to a Christian family, which makes her a prime target of sexual harassment. “Contractors and owners openly make dirty jokes, and touch our bodies. They don’t even pretend it’s inadvertent. I’ve been sexually molested in front of my husband, who has been powerless to do anything. If anyone tries, they are just beaten like animals,” she says. She narrates one particularly horrifying incident. “My family and I returned home late one day, after visiting a relative in another village. It had been raining. The contractor we were working under, was not amused. He dragged my entire family out of the house and beat both the men and women mercilessly. They tore off my clothes and felt me up in front of everybody. All this because he thought we had run away to another brick kiln without paying back the money we owed.” But despite being treated so inhumanely, Sajjida and her family have little choice but to continue working at the same kiln until they can repay their debt.

While Pakistan’s civil society drags its feet on the issue, many other Asian countries have already enacted hard-hitting laws to deal with the menance of harassment and sexual bias. Since 1995, legislation to protect people against sexual harassment has been adopted in Australia, Bangladesh, Japan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and China. The Supreme Court in India issued a landmark judgment in 1997, establishing sexual harassment as “a social problem of considerable magnitude” and a violation of the fundamental rights of women workers, laying down strict guidelines to protect these rights. Meanwhile, laws which put the onus on organisations themselves to prevent cases of sexual harassment, are now in force in Australia and the Republic of Korea.

So without an aggressive approach, will anything change? Bold steps are all the more necessary in a society, which till today remains confused with regards to its position on women. Many like Samina Hasan of the ILO believe that the answer lies in educating societies on the equal status of their women. An activist of a progressive Muslim group echoes this sentiment. “The message must be projected loud and clear. We must reject the notion of inherently evil women and uncontrollable male sexuality, so that women are empowered to take part in all sections and actions of society, in accordance with the Islamic ideal,” she maintains. The problem is that with a newfound Islamic revival borne of global policies that appear to target the religion, it is often uneducated or fundamentalist clerics, not genuine scholars, that become the voice of Islam, and their interpretation of the faith is not usually woman-friendly. An imam in a Clifton mosque, for example, states that, “women should be encouraged to stay at home to tend to their primary duties of housekeeping,” and that “the problems the Ummah faces today, are partly due to the fact that women are allowed to pray alongside men, unveiled, in the Kaaba.”

While moves to combat sexual harassment are increasing, both in Asia, and globally, the implicit protection of the perpetrators of sexual harassment must give way to an explicit recognition of the problem. According to Fouzia Saeed, what is needed is “educating people about the problem, and coming up with constructive and creative solutions.” The issue of creating a sustainable work environment which safeguards women’s inalienable human rights is imaginably an imperative. And who better to educate society and challenge the status-quo that is so biased against them, than women themselves.