All-female panel explains anti-harassment law, dispels myths

KARACHI: With frequent reports of sexual harassment cases surfacing both on social and mainstream media, an awareness session was organised by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) at The Second Floor (T2F) on Sunday to shed light on how individuals and organizations can protect themselves and others, particularly women and other vulnerable groups, in view of the prevalent laws.

Veteran women’s rights activist and HRCP co-chairperson Uzma Noorani led the panel discussion. She was joined by lawyers Sara Malkani and Hiba Thobani – both actively involved in developing policies for the protection of rights for victims of workplace harassment.

Areeba Fatima, a recent A-Level graduate, also shared her experience of fighting against sexual harassment at educational institutions and her quest for implementation of policies to prevent such incidents.

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“A very comprehensive definition of harassment is given within the anti-harassment law passed in 2010,” explained Malkani, who was asked to reflect on the legal considerations in instances of workplace harassment. “There is a whole range of conduct that can be legally challenged,” she added.

Under the law, an employer is required to set up an inquiry committee and make appropriate recommendations or penalties if harassment is found, said Malkani. “The other option is to take the complaint to the Ombudsman, who is required to proceed with the investigation.”

As far as criminal law is concerned, one must follow the criminal procedure and register an FIR nominating the accused, according to Malkani. “The police will commence its own investigation and take the case to court if there is space for criminal investigation,” she explained.

When it was her turn to speak, Thobani chose to start by dispelling the notion that harassment could only be of a physical nature. “We need to understand that harassment is not just about physical harassment,” she stressed. “It has been eight years since the law was passed, [but] till today there is a misunderstanding that sexual harassment must be physical because that’s absolutely untrue. Even things that we say or one’s behaviour may be considered harassment under the law.”

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For Noorani, the situation was not optimal but there was hope yet. Simply having passed the anti-harassment law from the legislature was a major accomplishment, she said. “There was a lot of resistance from the extremely patriarchal setup that exists within our legislative bodies, yet we were able to pass this law which was a major achievement,” the HRCP co-chairperson remarked, adding that the need now was to make the law effective. “That will surely take some time but it’s all because of the struggle by the women’s rights movement that we were able to achieve such a law ”

The last to speak, Areeba Fatima, minced no words as she spoke of the patriarchal mindset prevalent in Pakistani society. “We not only have issues implementing harassment laws at our workplaces and educational institutions, we are lacking in perspective too,” she lamented

“We should talk more about the brutal mindset prevalent among men,” she implored the audience, adding that there were several schools in the city that had a rampant problem of sexual harassment, but it couldn’t be addressed due to the lack of a coherent policy.

“Despite the 2010 Act, there seems to be a lack of interest when it comes to tackling such a subject that is so taboo,” she said. “There are no workshops and sessions for creating awareness about such issues. We see that students are silenced and told not to raise such issues, which is highly problematic.”

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