The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace may be new for many people in this country or may not even be an issue for them, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that its frequency is increasing as a greater number of women enter the workplace.
A seminar was told recently by a number of working women and women rights advocates that sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, has not only grown in Pakistan but has adopted new forms.
It has emerged that the new tools being used include the computer through which offensive e-mails are sent to women and the mobile phone which is used for SMS messages of the same nature. What is more interesting here is that unlike other forms of harassment where the perpetrator leaves no trace of his misdeeds, in this instance the proof is there for all to see.
Granted that emails can be sent from fictitious addresses and SMS from phones which cannot be traced, the fact that this form of abuse is taking place indicates that not enough is being done to check it.
One would have imagined that with the significant rise in the number of women in the workforce, particularly the services sector, in the past five years or so, the government and the private sector would have done more to check this practice, but this is not the case.
As a first step, the government and the private sector should join hands to start a campaign in which sexual harassment in the workplace is defined. This will make working women understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior in a workplace.
The second step in this national exercise would be to ask employers to put into place a proper policy that defines sexual harassment and clearly spells out what action is to be taken against someone found guilty of it.
In addition to this, employers need to have a mechanism which enables any employee subjected to such harassment to approach an appropriate forum for filing a complaint. The complaint should be treated confidentially and investigated, and if guilty the offender should be punished according to the employer's code of ethics for employees.
Of course, given that many companies have an environment which is more or less male-dominated and where men are in most decision-making senior roles, it may be a bit much to expect that things will change overnight. However, to do nothing would also be a sign that we as a nation are not willing to evolve and provide justice to those who are victims of this menace.
The government, for its part, should consistently monitor the implementation of such a policy and possibly set up a hotline where affected women whose complaints are not being given attention by their employers could complain. Action should be taken against the employers and, if proven, against those who are guilty of this abuse.
One can only wonder what our Women's Division has been doing so far since there has been no meaningful initiative on their part in this regard. Thousands of women in Pakistan, many of them in dire financial straits, leave their employment because of sexual harassment.
A larger number of women endure it every day owing to the fact that they need to support their families. We owe it to all these women to adopt a strategy that will ensure safety in the workplace, both physically and mentally.