Interview: One Step Forward

Interview: One Step Forward

Interview: One Step Forward

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By Razeshta Sethna

DAWN

April 13, 2014

In January 2010, the Senate unanimously passed The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill amid strong criticism from religious parties, further amending the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 and the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898. Though last-minute amendments extended protection to men — an apparent compromise — this legislation pertains to an amendment in the Pakistan Penal Code, Section 509, to include the definition of sexual harassment, making it a criminal offence at home, on streets and at workplaces, with a punishment of up to three years imprisonment and a maximum fine of Rs500,000. It defines sexual harassment as “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 to make it a condition for employment.”

The law calls for all registered organisations and the public sector to institute a code of conduct, which is basically an anti-sexual harassment policy that includes the formation of a three-member standing committee to deal with complaints. After an inquiry, the committee will recommend penalties/punishment which the management must execute. In case the owner or a senior manager is implicated, an employee will have the choice of going outside the organisation to file a complaint with the Federal Ombudsperson, specifically for this purpose.

As Minister for Women Development in 2008, Ambassador Sherry Rehman, who has also authored other pro-women bills, such as the Women Empowerment Bill, the Domestic Violence Prevention Bill, and Anti-Honour Killings Bill, initiated legislation for The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill which she explains was necessary to support women in the workplace. In an interview with Dawn Ms Rehman talks of the challenging course adopted to protect women’s rights.

Q) When The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill was passed critics said it was un-Islamic. What were the challenges at the time?

A) Critics of human rights legislation have always used religion to skew the debate and orchestrate opinion against change. I took up this bill as the one thing I would get done in the three months I had as Federal Minister for Women’s Development as additional portfolio. I was supposed to ‘just look after it’ until it went to another cabinet colleague in the Nawaz League. I decided not to waste the opportunity of holding the portfolio and called in women from all political parties; women’s rights activists and federal secretaries from the law, labour and women’s ministries for consultative meetings. We would roundtable with these people, who all had objections as well as ideas; one of our objectives was to ensure that the bill would not just get flagged as anti-Islamic, because there really was no reason for it to be treated as such. Given that Islam does offer protections to women, I cited such clauses in the non-written preamble.

I took up this bill as the one thing I would get done in the three months I had as Federal Minister for Women’s Development as additional portfolio.

At the early stages though, hurdles came from the politics of government and not from the bill itself, which is usually the case. The labour ministry opposed it strongly, because they felt that their laws already allowed for adequate protections and saw it as an invasion of their turf. So I made sure I kept the Labour Minister, an old PPP colleague, on board and withdrew his bureaucracy’s objections.

Q) It’s an assumption that certain male parliamentarians would oppose pro-women legislation, but did you have trouble convincing women legislators, especially from the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI)? Was support easily available from female legislators across party lines?

A) Most women did support it. But treasury bills have to get past the cabinet before they go to the parliament and this is not always easy. My plan was to take it to the cabinet before the ministry went into the doldrums with someone not passionate about human rights legislation. So I thrashed out the objections, added value and had it presented at a cabinet meeting. At the cabinet meeting we got road-blocked by two ministries that had been involved from day one. First, what was shocking was the briefing by the women’s ministry secretary. He made it sound like a bill that should not get past the cabinet into parliament for voting and committee scrutiny.

So while he could not oppose the bill, he did all he could to block it until the last day. After his disastrous presentation to the Prime Minister, the Law Minister just outright opposed it.

As I was also the Information Minister who conducted the cabinet briefing, I took the Prime Minister’s permission to announce it to the media that day, because once that is done, the government has to try and carry it through the parliament over the objections of other ministries.

A stunt like this normally kills all such bills, but I made my own presentation to the cabinet and appealed to Prime Minister Gilani that this was a PPP government and that we need to pass such laws. He overruled the Law Minister and consulted the two other women — Samina Gurkhi and Shahnaz Wazir Ali — present in the cabinet that day, to see if they agreed with me (which they did). Following that, he allowed it to get past the cabinet in principle, which is what we needed. I made sure this decision became irreversible. As I was also the Information Minister who conducted the cabinet briefing, I took the Prime Minister’s permission to announce it to the media that day, because once that is done, the government has to try and carry it through the parliament over the objections of other ministries. And that is exactly what happened. Later, when the bill got stuck after a year in parliament because of objections raised by powerful ministers and the JUI-F, it was the same cabinet colleagues and women across party lines who kept pursuing it with the Prime Minister and the President. A year later, we gave the JUI-F the concession of having the law become gender-neutral, which means it would protect male victims as well. There was much quibbling and hair-splitting on language, but it got done in the Speaker’s office over a meeting. Many women came forward, and we are grateful to all of them for this truly collaborative outcome.

Q) When Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (ASHA) drafted a code of conduct which also served as the foundation of The Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Bill, women politicians and those within the women’s ministry had lobbied for the bill. How significant was ASHA’s lobbying and what role do women activists play when it comes to pressurising and getting parliamentarians to move bills and draw attention to issues of significance?

In a sense this bill is the best example of a law made in collaboration with civil society, which was the initiator of the draft, and also carried its implementation forward.

A) ASHA was the non-governmental organisation, and Fouzia Saeed brought the bill to me initially; it is a result of their draft and later much lobbying that we got it passed. The bill would never have passed without the women who collaborated on this, both within and outside the parliament. Fouzia also continues to monitor responses to it and owns it in ways legislators cannot once the law is passed. So in a sense this bill is the best example of a law made in collaboration with civil society, which was the initiator of the draft, and also carried its implementation forward.

Q) Many point to the weaknesses and legal loopholes in this bill saying it was a good idea to initiate but not easy to implement with various kinds of working environments and harassment cases within universities. Would you agree?

A) There may be many flaws, but getting it passed was the actual goal; flaws can be ironed out later on. This is one law that is actually being enforced in many private sector entities. I myself saw it being used in the public sector. I was on the board of Quaid-i-Azam University, for instance, where we actually used the law to address complaints and the Higher Education Commission took our use of it as a roadmap for other institutions under its purview. I have never seen such proactivity for progressive laws.

No law is perfect, nor is it immune from reform. Most bills are works-in-progress. The important thing is establishing the principle.

There may be an onerous number of cases, obviously, where it doesn’t get applied or loopholes get exploited, but that would be the case for any law, anywhere in the world. We do need to start somewhere and as time goes by, usage can dictate amendments. No law is perfect, nor is it immune from reform. Most bills are works-in-progress. The important thing is establishing the principle. Now it is hard to take this law back as well as the principle that the state has to stand up to protect a woman or man being harassed in the workplace.

Q) Should there be government-led monitoring organisations perhaps under provincial women’s ministries to check that organisations/work places are implementing the law?

A) Yes, this is what the Provincial Women’s Ombudsman should be doing. This was my suggestion, so it also becomes an option for appeal between the public step of going to a court and the private and often predatory accommodations of an office committee.

This interview was originally published here.


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