On April 19, Meesha Shafi, a singer and actor, accused her colleague Ali Zafar of sexual harassment. Since then, several other women in Pakistan, including actors Ayesha Omar and Armeena Khan, have shared their stories of sexual assault in public places. With the deluge of allegations, and exchange of stories, one question keeps popping up: Why didn’t these women report the incidents to the relevant authority? One answer would be that a large chunk of women and men in Pakistan are unaware of laws that govern harassment at work and public places. How does one report the crime and what relief, if any, would he/she receive?
Experts at the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) to list down the laws, their ambit and drawbacks for our readers:
Under Section 509(i) of the Pakistan Penal Code, harassment in public places is defined as:
“intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman.”
According to experts at the PCSW, a state body established in 2014 to ensure that programmes of the provincial government promote gender equality, section 509(i) needs to be expanded further to include harassment through the use of electronic means of communication.
If convicted under this section of the PPC, a person can be:
- imprisoned for up to three years OR
- fine up to Rs. 500,000 OR
In 2010, Pakistan passed the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act to provide legal protection to women at work.
It defines sexual harassment as following:
“unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors 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.”
However, the Pakistan Penal Code also deals with women in office spaces. It expounds harassment as:
“conducts sexual advances, or demands sexual favours or uses verbal or non-verbal communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature which intends to annoy, insult, intimidate or threaten the other person or commits such acts at the premises of workplace, or makes submission to such conduct either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, or makes submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual a basis for employment decision affecting such individual, or retaliates because of rejection of such behaviour, or conducts such behaviour with the intention of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile,, or offensive working environment.”
A female employee who has been harassed at a workplace may:
- Submit a written complaint to a member(s) of the Inquiry Committee identifying the harasser and describing the harassing incident(s)
- Lodge a formal complaint directly to the Office of the Ombudsperson who shall conduct an inquiry into the matter in accordance with the rules formed under the Harassment Act
- If not, the complaint may file a petition against the employer for not complying with the requisite procedures under the Harassment Act in a district court
If convicted under the Harassment Act:
- withholding, for a specific period, promotion or increment
- recovery of the compensation payable to the complainant from pay or any other source of the accused
- reduction to a lower post
- compulsory retirement
- removal from service
- dismissal from service, and
On August 11, 2016, Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. While some of its features remain controversial due to their overreach, the law, for the first time, dealt with online harassment. According to it, harassment on the internet is when:
(1) A person commits the offence of cyber stalking who, with the intent to coerce or intimidate or harass any person, uses [electronic] means of communication
(a) a person contacts or attempts to contact such person to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such person
(d) takes a photograph or makes a video of any person and displays or distributes it without his consent in a manner that harms a person”
A person harassed online can:
- Can submit an application to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) for removal, destruction of information instead of going to the court
- The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has an online complaint mechanism as well as a Helpline (9911)
A male or female perpetrator of cyber-stalking shall be liable to:
- imprisonment for a term which may extend up to three years OR
- with fine which may extend to Rs. 1 million OR
Only employees are eligible to file a complaint under the Harassment Act 2010. For instance, in the case of a university, a female student who has been harassed by a student or a member of the faculty or administrative staff will not have a remedy under the Harassment Act; however, in such cases, the victim can still file a complaint under Section 509(i) of the PPC.
Another concern is the under-reporting and lack of implementation of the laws. Between 2014 to 2017, only 98 complaints were received by the Office of the Ombudsperson. Up to 38 per cent were later withdrawn. This indicates that fewer women seek legal remedy for harassment.
Finally, in Punjab, the ombusperson has no offices or representatives outside Lahore, at the district level.