The touchstone of the morality of a nation or a society is the way it treats its women. Women are a vital segment of any society. Without their unhindered participation in all spheres of national life, no nation can march towards its cherished goals of economic, political and moral progress or aspire to earn a respectable place in the comity of nations. That perhaps is the yardstick by which the difference between the developed and the developing nations is assessed.
Viewed in the backdrop of this, the recent signing of the ‘Protection of Women from Harassment at Workplace Bill 2009’ by President Zardari has taken Pakistan one notch up on the moral plank in addition to all other accompanying benefits. The president speaking on the occasion rightly summed up the vision of the PPP government about the status of women in Pakistan in these words: “We have to create a Pakistan where the coming generations, my daughters, can be proud of the fact that they live as equals. We will make sure that those who wish to harm the ideology of the Quaid-i-Azam, which was for equality for men and women, shall not succeed.”
In a society which still continues to be haunted by the demon of obscurantism, the new legislation marks the beginning of a pragmatic and forward looking approach closer to the emerging social realities. With the growing number of women joining or aspiring to join the workforce in different spheres of national life, the problem of harassment of women in the workplace had also assumed alarming proportions. According to a survey conducted by an NGO, 80 per cent of working women in Pakistan at one time or another have faced this ordeal.
The issue was continuously being highlighted by women rights groups, NGOs working for improving the status of women, women legislators and members of the civil society. The PPP government which has an abiding commitment to the true emancipation of women could not remain oblivious to this snow-balling social phenomenon which infringed upon the dignity, self-respect and self-esteem of women and which also violated their human rights and acted as a deterrent towards their entering the workforce as men’s equals. Coming on the heels of the announcement by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani for the setting up of the office of Ombudsman for Women and an amendment in Section 509 A of the Pakistan Penal Code that defines sexual harassment, the new legislation lays a solid foundation for ensuring a harassment-free working environment for women.
This new legislative measure provides an excellent mechanism to deal with the issue. It puts the onus on the management of the organisations employing women to adopt a code of conduct and also to constitute a three-member inquiry committee, duly notified, to deal with harassment complaints. Their failure to comply with the legislation entails punitive action and financial penalties. The victims of sexual harassment can also seek redress of their complaints from the Ombudsman for Women, if they are not satisfied with the internal proceedings of the concerned organisation.
The legislation is a significant initiative on many counts. Firstly, it will encourage the already working women — who have been enduring the humiliation of sexual harassment in the absence of appropriate legal support — to spurn and resist unwanted approaches by their workmates or bosses and do their jobs with unruffled confidence. Secondly, it will also help mitigate the biggest hurdle in the way of women who were reluctant to join the workforce due to this phenomenon. Thirdly, it will greatly help in changing the mindset of sexual harassers of women. The legislation could act as a catalyst in nudging the process of a social and economic change. Women constitute nearly 51 per cent of our population and their uninhibited participation in economic activities can also give impetus to the efforts to eliminate poverty
The signing of the bill by the president, in the presence of the UN representatives, women rights activists, women parliamentarians, members of the civil society, federal and state ministers and other stakeholders indicates the uniqueness of this piece of legislation and the importance that the PPP government attaches to the issues related to the emancipation of Pakistani women. It also was an appropriate occasion to show to the world how we treat our women. It is encouraging to note that most of the NGOs and human rights organisations whose representatives attended the ceremony did acknowledge the commitment of the government in this regard and hailed the legislation as a historic move by the PPP government in regard to the protection of the rights of women. In fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that in the history of Pakistan, no other piece of legislation has provided protection to the workingwomen from sexual harassment.
The PPP government has also been working on another very important and sensitive issue, that of domestic violence. For years the issue of domestic violence has been a source of public concern, but no previous governments dared to touch it. The adoption of The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act 2008 in line with the National Policy of Empowerment of Women is yet another significant achievement of the present PPP government which supports a zero tolerance policy for violence against women. The courage shown by the government in bringing this nagging problem out of the private domain provides irrefutable testimony to an unswerving commitment of the government to deal with issues related to women. It also reinforces its credentials as an emancipator of the women.
Other steps that the PPP government has taken for the empowerment and redemption of equal status for women in society, in line with the vision of Shaheed Muhtarma Benazir Bhutto, include granting of complete administrative and financial autonomy to the National Commission on Status of Women and fixation of a 10 per cent quota for women in government jobs in addition to the initiation of the process to review all the discriminatory laws against women, declaring women as beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Scheme as well as of free distribution of state lands to female heads of households in the command areas of the dams to be built in the country.
The PPP endeavours for the emancipation of women in fact represent the continuation of the struggle launched by the stalwarts like Muhtarma Fatima Jinnah and Begum Rana Liaquat Ali Khan with which my late grandmother Begum Qamar Ispahani also had the privilege to be associated. Unfortunately, that process was severely disrupted due to the extremist ideology of Zia that resulted in promulgation of a number of discriminatory laws against women. The world however is witness to the fact that Shaheed Muhtarma Benazir Bhutto stood strong and unbowed and kept the flame of liberal thought alive. By doing so she helped protect Pakistan from the designs of the dictator, which were to change this nation into a theocratic state. Muhtarma’s struggle kept the torch of democracy, enlightenment and human rights aloft against all odds. Through her shahadat (martyrdom) she has imparted eternity to her vision about democracy and human rights in Pakistan. Inspired by Muhtarma’s vision, we continue to struggle for the empowerment of women.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a member of the National Assembly (MNA) and media advisor to the co-chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)