Workplace harassment must stop

Despite the presence of laws aimed at protecting women from sexual harassment and mistreatment in the workplace, it’s disheartening to see that they still endure physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional victimization. It’s like having a safety net made of Swiss cheese—it’s there, but it’s full of holes. These laws should be empowering women to challenge their treatment, but unfortunately, many professional environments remain toxic, and the perpetrators seem undeterred, subjecting women to an unending cycle of humiliation and victimization.

In Pakistan, there is a significant number of working women who fall victim to various forms of harassment, yet they are compelled to continue working in hostile environments. As per Arab News, about 93 percent of Pakistani working women, in both private and public sectors, acknowledge facing some kind of harassment in professional settings. Even those who summon the courage to take a stand against their harassers face numerous challenges in their pursuit of justice, which only serves to normalize workplace harassment even further.

Take the case of a former senior officer at an electric company who filed a complaint of sexual harassment against the CEO. Instead of allowing the ombudsman to proceed with the case, the company’s lawyers managed to obtain a stay order in the Sindh High Court, causing a year-long delay in the victim’s quest for justice. And the struggle continues.

According to the victim, the CEO’s behavior included late-night dinner invitations, attempts to control her actions, and making inappropriate comments. When she didn’t comply, he created a hostile environment and subjected her to mental torment. Despite her efforts to report the harassment within the organization, the senior management and HR department failed to take action. Instead, she faced pressure to withdraw her complaint.

As a result of her complaint, the victim not only lost her job but also had her dues withheld, including salaries and pension funds, which remain unpaid even after almost two years. Shockingly, the alleged perpetrator and others named in the complaint still hold their positions and face no investigation or consequences.

This case highlights the ineffectiveness of internal committees, particularly when junior staff members are expected to take action against senior management who control their professional careers. Additionally, the justice system often fails victims, as they bear the burden of their legal fees, while the alleged perpetrators have ample resources to hire expensive corporate lawyers and prolong the legal process through adjournments. This strategic exhaustion of the victim’s finances and emotional strength is a common tactic. Furthermore, victims are required to attend hearings, while perpetrators can conveniently abstain, further exacerbating the power imbalance.

For women who choose to seek justice through the courts, their professional careers become casualties, as companies are reluctant to hire individuals who have filed complaints against their employers. Moreover, women complainants face societal disrespect and criticism. The delay and appeal tactics employed by alleged perpetrators prolong the legal proceedings, while they continue to enjoy job security and face no consequences.

Although there have been improvements in the law, such as the 2022 Amendment Act, which expands worker protection and acknowledges that harassment doesn’t have to be overtly sexual, implementation remains a pressing issue.

While the ombudsman system provides a platform for women to raise their voices, the lack of state-level support in court discourages women from pursuing legal action. The financial and emotional toll, coupled with the time-consuming nature of the justice system, often dissuades victims from pursuing their cases. Urgent attention is needed to address the procedural loopholes that allow harassers to exploit the system.

The role of top management is crucial in combating workplace harassment. Incidents have been successfully addressed when the top management takes a proactive stance. Women need to gather the strength to stand up against harassment, supported by their families and employers. Establishing a gender-friendly work environment through awareness sessions and the formation of harassment committees can significantly reduce workplace harassment.

However, the ombudsman’s failure to implement harassment laws effectively and the lack of consistency between federal and provincial laws remain significant challenges. Efforts should be made to synchronize and strengthen both levels of legislation to address harassment, gender-based discrimination, and victimization comprehensively.

The ground reality reflects a stark discrepancy between the number of employees facing workplace harassment and those who approach internal inquiry committees. While there has been an increase in complaints filed, many cases still go unreported due to fear of reprisal and a lack of job security or regulatory mechanisms.

Sexually suggestive comments, unwelcome advances, and threats for refusing sexual demands are distressingly common experiences for women. The abuse of annual performance evaluations as a means of coercion and preventing complaints further perpetuates the culture of harassment. Office managements often turn a blind eye, fearing the repercussions of confronting harassers in senior positions. Private sector organizations, in particular, appear to be involved in a significant number of harassment cases due to the absence of job security and regulatory oversight.

Pakistan has struggled to protect human rights, especially women’s rights, in accordance with international standards. Economic growth and increased female participation in the workforce have come at the cost of rampant human rights violations and abuses. The redressal system for women facing harassment, discrimination, victimization, and humiliation is flawed, lacking transparency and accountability for both state and private institutions.

To create lasting change, women must be encouraged to come forward and report harassment without fear of reprisal. The system needs to be more comprehensive and robust, with mechanisms in place to hold both individuals and organizations accountable for their actions. Only then can women’s talents and abilities flourish without being stifled by the prevailing culture of misogyny.


Hi! I'm an occasional reader, an avid writer and a fiercely firm feminist too. Hope you read & like my articles. I don't do politics much but I love writing for women, culture & life!