Far-reaching void: Non-appointment of ombudsman leaves women in vulnerable position

 Khurshid Bano demanded the authorities concerned act promptly and provide legal forum to save women. PHOTO: AFP

Khurshid Bano demanded the authorities concerned act promptly and provide legal forum to save women. PHOTO: AFP

PESHAWAR: The failure to appoint a provincial ombudsman has rendered women working at government offices and private organisations vulnerable to harassment.

Many of them have been deprived of their constitutional right to appeal against harassment at the hands of male colleagues and the right to challenge the decisions of the departmental committees.

Six years have passed since the federal government enforced Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010. However, the provincial government has done little to implement the legislation to protect women at workplaces.

A series of promises have been made and deadlines have been given to civil society delegations regarding the appointment of an ombudsman. But the relevant authorities have reneged on their promises and deadlines have been missed time and again.

Civil society members have relentlessly pursued the cause but are gradually losing trust in the incumbent government.

“Harassment [in the workplaces] continues,” said Khurshid Bano, chief executive officer of Da Hawa Loor, a campaign that has actively sought to raise voice against the harassment of women. “But cases are either hushed up or taken to departmental committees with no platform to challenge the committee’s decision.”

In the law

The 2010 legislation defines harassment as any unwelcomed sexual advance. It includes requests for sexual favours or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes which cause interference with work performance or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

Section 7 of the act makes it mandatory that respective governments shall appoint an ombudsman at the federal and provincial levels, a constitutional duty that is being violated continuously since the last six years.

Under subsection 5 of Section 8, a complainant unsatisfied by the ombudsman decision can appeal to the president or governor within 30 days of the decision.

Any woman harassed at workplace has the option to complain to a departmental committee. If she is not satisfied with the decision, she can take its decision to the ombudsman office and then to the governor at the provincial level.

“Unfortunately, due to non-appointment of an ombudsman, women fallen victim to harassment have no alternative to challenge departmental committee’s decision and their case is stopped at an early stage,” said Bilal Khan Khalil, an advocate at the Peshawar High Court.

Promises made

According to Khurshid Bano, the issue of non-appointment of ombudsman has been raised with the government. She said K-P Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser even assured the appointment in a month, a deadline which is over.

Minister for Social Welfare Sikandar Sherpao promised to appoint an ombudsman within two months – the deadline is about to end but no step has been taken so far.  “Now we have decided to launch a protest drive that will go on till an ombudsman is appointed,” she said. However, Sikandar Sherpao said he was not the appointing authority.

He said a search committee headed by the chief secretary will recommend names that would be sent to the chief minister for approval.

Role of the police

Khalil said in such a conservative society it is not easy for women to register a harassment case. Moreover, the police’s unawareness on the issue makes it more difficult for women to report a case.

He added the police was unaware Section 509 of Pakistan Penal Code has been amended and now applies to harassment in public places as well.

Besides, the act binds the government departments to arrange awareness sessions on how to behave with female colleagues.

“If the police don’t know how to register a harassment case, how would they solve it,” Khalil questioned.

Rising cases

Khurshid Bano said she daily receives dozens of complaints   from universities, colleges and offices, but due to unavailability of a proper forum, most of the cases go unreported. She added around 250 to 300 harassment complaints were reported this year, of which only six have been registered.

She quoted some cases that were reported but could not reach its logical end due to unavailability of a proper forum. One was related to University of Peshawar where students were harassed by senior teachers but junior ones were dismissed to save the actual culprits.

A mindset prevails that blames women as an ultimate reason for her harassment. Most women dress according to the local culture, but are harassed nevertheless. Khurshid Bano demanded the authorities concerned act promptly and provide legal forum to save women.

Original news : http://tribune.com.pk/story/1161748/far-reaching-void-non-appointment-ombudsman-leaves-women-vulnerable-position/