Sexual harassment

THIS week, the Supreme Court ordered the federal and provincial governments to simplify the process of registering sexual harassment complaints and to make the law ‘stronger’.

Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed issued the order after reading reports on the ‘weakness’ of the existing law.

A month ago, a meeting attended by the federal ombudsperson for sexual harassment, Kashmala Tariq, and organised by the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell, discussed faults in the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010.

Some of the concerns raised were: the law and its title should be changed to encompass all women, and not limited to just the workplace; ombudspersons should have a legal background; there should be no cut-off date for filing a complaint; the law should be inclusive towards transgendered persons; and there should be a clearer definition of harassment.

There have been numerous articles pointing out these problems over the years, with some complaining of its vague language and of the narrow definition of what constitutes harassment.

During the meeting, it was brought up that while civil society groups thought the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010, need not be amended, the legal fraternity was of the view that it was in need of revisions before it could be implemented. But what was interesting about this meeting was when certain participants brought up the lack of accountability within the legal fraternity — their own workplace.

Under the law, the aggrieved party can approach the ombudsperson’s office directly to register their complaint. The respected federal and provincial ombudspersons need to work with relevant institutions of the state machinery to process formal sexual harassment complaints in both the government and private sector; set up inquiry committees that report within 30 days, along with an additional seven days to implement their findings; ensure all workplaces have a clear code of conduct; and uphold public conduct for deterrence and awareness purposes.

While there may indeed be problems in the law and particularly in its wording — and criticism and debate is fair and should be ongoing as judicial officers and the larger society need to be sensitised to harassment in all its manifestations — this is not a reason to delay implementing the existing law.

Most workplaces currently do not have committees and notices in place. Their presence will protect many women who are simply trying to do their job.