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EDITORIAL: Annual report of the office of the Federal Ombudsperson Secretariat for Protection Against Harassment (FOSPAH) launched a few days ago shows a massive increase in workplace harassment cases. Although billed as annual report, it covers a four-year period. As few as 84 cases were registered in 2010-13, rising to 338 during 2013-2018, and to a further 5,008 through 2018-2022.

Interestingly, however, the last figure includes 1,310 complaints filed by men. The report goes on to note that out of the 5,008 registered complaints, 1,689 came from women and men from the public sector and as many as 3,319 from females and males in the private sector. At first glance this sudden jump in numbers is deeply concerning. That figure though may not necessarily be reflective of what it seems to imply.

A lot has changed during the recent years. An increasing number of better educated, self-confident women capable of confronting misogynist attitudes are joining the workforce. While some may still be suffering in silence either due to fear of losing their jobs, or bullying, or inviting a bad reputation; many are reporting their harassers where it matters. Meanwhile, rights groups and the Supreme Court have been expressing disapproval over the flaws in the 2010 anti-discrimination law.

In its verdict last year on a petition filed by a PTV staffer, Nadia Naz, against termination of her employment whilst her complaint with the Federal Ombudsperson’s office was still pending, the apex court had observed that the existing law was “blinkered” in its application as it did not address the issue in a holistic manner, focusing only on its sexual aspect.

The law has since been suitably amended, thanks to the efforts of former minister for human right Shirin Mazari and support she received from women legislators across the political divide.

Seen as a landmark development the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Amendment) Act enacted last January contains several progressive changes in the 2010 law. The legal definition of employees has been broadened to include contractual, part-time, and freelance employees, as well as domestic and home-based workers, sportspersons, artists and students.

Harassment means not only unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or verbal/physical conduct of a sexual nature which creates and intimidation or abusive work environment; it includes discrimination on gender basis, which may or may not be of sexual nature but embody a discriminatory and prejudicial mindset resulting in discriminatory behaviour.

One can only hope this law will encourage more and more women and others to come forward and hold their harassers to account. In fact, the latest figures of harassment put out by FOSPAH suggest that has started to happen.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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