Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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Sexual Harassment and Gender Based Violence in Pakistan

A student of the Lahore University of Management Sciences recently made a claim of sexual harassment against a former professor at the university's law faculty. He was then found guilty by the Provincial (Punjab) Ombudsman for Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace. This case has brought back the issue of sexual harassment to the spotlight, despite it being obvious that it only disappeared from the public eye and not so much from the daily working life of many people in Pakistan. Sexual harassment is widespread, with a large number of cases going unreported. Not only is there hesitation against the reporting of cases as a result of social stigmatisation but also there is lack of knowledge of the relevant law. According to the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010:

“harassment” means any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or is made a condition for employment.


The workplace, although it is not the only place where sexual harassment takes place, is especially sensitive in this regard as in most cases it comes with hierarchical structures that discourage those experiencing sexual harassment to speak up. Therefore it is of extreme importance to establish a climate at the workplace that motivates everybody to speak up against sexual harassment without having to fear potential personal consequences.

Women who stand up against those harassing them sexually are praised for their courage. This is despite the fact that the environment for many women is still not supportive enough for them to find the strength to take their complaints of sexual harassment to the relevant bodies. The introduction of the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 and the establishment of the Office of the Federal and Provincial (Punjab) Ombudsman for Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace are welcomed as necessary steps.

However, the mere fact that courage is still needed to call out instances of harassment, suggests that we have not come as far as we possibly could. Only when standing up against sexual harassment is considered simply what you do in such cases, do we get closer towards a society that discourages sexual harassment at large. Sexual harassment policies and laws are crucial first steps but in the end it is on each and every one of us to do their bit to create a societal climate that leaves no space for sexual harassment. To this end one should be aware that there is no such thing as a minor harassment that is not worth reporting and it definitely does not depend on what clothes one wears. Including actions against sexual harassment in the broader agenda of women’s empowerment is crucial. The more women are in powerful positions at a workplace, the less space there will be for sexual harassment.

Much space for action is left with regard to sexual harassment as is the case for gender-based violence. Gender based violence (or violence against women, VAW) comes in various forms and ever so often shows its face in the most severe ways, through honour killings, acid throwing, rape and kidnapping. Where the workplace is particularly sensitive with regard to harassment, the domestic sphere is also sensitive to violence. Domestic violence is widespread and diverse in its forms. A woman's dependence, low self-esteem and fear of leaving are among the causes for her to endure this conduct. Domestic violence is a health, legal, economic, educational, social, development and human rights issue. Therefore the responses that seek to address domestic iolence have to be just as broad.

Currently three regional laws on the protection against domestic violence are in place in Islamabad, Sindh and Balochistan, being introduced in 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively. Civil society in Punjab is actively advocating for the introduction of a law on domestic violence. Punjab is the province with the highest prevalence of violence against women. In 2012, 63% of all cases of violence against women and 58% of all cases of domestic violence were from the Punjab. While a private member bill has been with the government of the Punjab since January 2014, chances for it being introduced any time soon are slim, since no private member bill has ever been passed in the Assembly of the Punjab. Therefore efforts are currently being made among women's rights NGOs to remind the provincial government of their responsibilities towards protection of women against domestic violence.

Violence is no private matter but rather requires public attention and punishment for the perpetrator. Many cases remain unreported both due to stigmatization and lack of trust in official processes. Doubts remains with regard to efficacy as well as confidentiality of the protection and prosecution structures in place. Especially in rural areas, forums for complaints are often simply out of physical reach for those suffering from domestic violence. Therefore, structures have to be in place and within easy reach, which allow women to file complaints without any fear of potential negative social consequences for themselves or their children. Police officials need to take complaints seriously and take them further without delay, while women have to be aware of the rights they have and how to effectively access them.

In response to sexual harassment in the workplace, and to gender-based violence more generally - we must advocate for both comprehensive legal provisions and a transformation of the way society understands and responds to these violations against women.


Pia Ucar is a human rights lawyer and a scholar with IFA's Cross Culture Programme, an intercultural exchange programme for young professionals.  Pia is working with Shirkat Gah Women's Resource Centre in Lahore from October until December 2014. She mainly assists the Law and Advocacy Department on various women's rights issues including birth registration, domestic violence and sexual and reproductive health rights. 

This is the 5th entry in our #16Days 2014 blogging series.  We are bringing you an entry from one of our inspiring activists on each day during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

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