Making Pakistani Workplaces Safer For Women

As Women's Day approaches, Pakistan must reckon with its horrendous record on women's safety. At workplaces, this will require a cultural change to make them safer for women, and improved recourse for victims of harassment and gender based violence.

Making Pakistani Workplaces Safer For Women

The first week of every March, the primary issue of contention among the Pakistani populace remains the same: why is there even a need to commemorate Women’s Day. 

For a rather convincing answer to that question, one need not look that far. In the 2023 Global Gender Gap Index Pakistan ranks 142 out of 146 countries in the world and regionally only Iran and Afghanistan (which has almost zero freedom of movement for women) rank below it.

Within the subindex for economic participation and economic opportunities, Pakistan ranks at 143, with less than 5% of senior positions being held by women. When it comes to unemployment of workers with advanced education, Pakistani women suffer are at around 30%, and the only country worse off from the collected data is Tunisia, so the issue is not with competence of women.

Moreover, according to the 2023 Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) report, 99.89% people in Pakistan have at least one gender bias against women, and 98.52% have at least 2. The report focuses on gender biases as social norms, that is to set limits on the capabilities of women and to regulate their behavior only for being a woman. These sorts of biases are often highly capricious as to “nature of a woman” and serve not only as an impediment to the basic human rights of women, but also bottleneck the potential of the entire country, as 49% of the population is effectively being undervalued, and so underutilized.

If Pakistani women reach the same level of labor participation as other emerging economies, the Pakistani economy could see up to a 30% boost. However, even when women are able to participate in the workforce, they often suffer from gender-based violence (GBV) at the workplace. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), GBV at workplace consists of “a range of unacceptable behaviors and practices” that “aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm.”

Given the fact Gender Gap Index highlights the abhorrent fact that over 85% of women have faced intimate partner physical or sexual violence, rampant GBV in workplaces in Pakistan should not be to anyone’s surprise. According to AASHA, 100% of the women have suffered sexual harassment in Pakistan. In a paper published in the Journal of Managerial Sciences, 100% of the respondents were aware of harassment at their workplaces and 96% said that their colleagues were victims of such harassment. The respondents also believed that taking any action against such harassment would result in losing their job. It is clear that workplace harassment results in inter alia withdrawal from work, ill physical and mental health, and long-lasting trauma. Apart from individual harm, there are also considerable economic costs.

The first legislation to counter such harassment was only enacted in 2010 as the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010. Section 2(h) of the act provides the meaning of harassment for the act as ‘any 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.’

In 2021, the Supreme Court interpreted “harassment” for the purposes of the act in the case of Nadia Naz vs. President of Islamic Republic of Pakistan and limited it only to a “sexual nature,” any other sort of behavior or conduct ordinarily ascribed to the word “harassment” would not be actionable, “however devastating it may be to the victim”. As a consequence, the Parliament would amend the Act in 2022 to insert section 2(h)(ii) to include “discrimination on the basis of gender” in the definition of “harassment.” “Stalking” and “cyberstalking” were also added into Section 2(h). Nevertheless, since the law cannot apply retrospectively, this meant that many victims of workplace GBV were left without legal reprisal.

Due to the vacuum left in the law for cases between 2010 and 2022, the Attorney General for Pakistan applied for a review of the Nadia Naz case. In 2023, Justice Ayesha Malik gave her judgement after examining multiple sources including debates in parliament to discover the meaning of “harassment” and found that the original case was decided on a mistaken understanding of the law as “harassment” already included “discrimination on basis of gender” prior to the amendment.

Justice Malik explains that harassment is a result of gender-based power dynamics and emphasized that “such harassment is motivated to degrade and demean a person by exploitation, humiliation and hostility which amounts to gender-based harassment and can include unwanted sexual alleviation and sexual coercion.” She further clarifies that “sexual harassment is oftentimes less about sexual interest and more about reinforcing existing power dynamics.” The judgement also held that in cases of harassment standard of a reasonable woman should be used to identify whether harassment took place, this validates the victim’s point of view.

Despite surveys and research available showing that vast majority of women have been made to suffer from GBV at work, and now more inclusive legislation, the number of reported cases still remain low. This is attributed firstly to the victim blaming impulse engrained within Pakistani culture, where even the mention of having been a victim of GBV is considered to be immodest and a contravention of cultural norms. Not only the public, but those responsible for responding to GBV such as police officers, lawyers, and journalists also ascribe to a just world fallacy associated with a “people get what they deserve” mindset, where it is assumed that the victim must have done something to deserve “it."

For example, the two-finger test, also known as the virginity test, was only outlawed federally by the Supreme Court in 2021 in Atif Zareef v. The State, the test had been used without consequence to see if a victim was “morally loose.”

Instead of dissuading such conceptions, popular figureheads constantly endorse it. Unarguably, the most popular “leader” in Pakistan, Imran Khan, has twice maintained in both international media (BBC) and domestic media that the rise in sexual crimes was a result of the clothing worn by women. In addition, one of the most reverential religious scholars in the country, Maulana Tariq Jameel, blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on women and deemed “behaya” women an issue of national concern.

Women who choose to proceed with their reports can expect to find them suppressed by their senior management, they may also be unjustly sacked by their employer and often without appropriately clearing their dues, even by larger, more prestigious organizations. Furthermore, legal costs in Pakistan are often paramount, which clearly benefits the employer. The cases often suffer considerable delays through appeals to the higher courts, stacking the costs. Even if a woman gets a verdict in her favor, she may find it hard to get a job due to defamation and negative references by the former employer, as well as societal biases against “such” women.

It is clear this Women’s Day that Pakistan has a very long way to go, even when women are able to participate in the economy, they are disproportionately affected by harassment and face harrowing challenges beyond the job. There is a strong need for effective judicial mechanisms to make it easier for women to argue their cases for GBV. The government should also ratify ILO C190 which provides both a preventive and remedial framework for workplace GBV, and also outlines the responsibilities of the government. Private sector organizations should also display their goodwill by providing sensitization trainings to their employees, which should serve not only to make women safer, but also manifest the twin effect of increased productivity.